The Winnipeg Jets embarked on a pivotal three-game eastern road trip with their once seemingly-secure playoff berth in serious jeopardy.
Winners of just two of their past 11 before heading to Florida for back-to-backs against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and then to Carolina for a tilt with the Hurricanes, the Jets looked to be in tough to stop their free fall.
180-plus minutes of hockey later, they captured four out of six points and return home for a matchup against the NHL-best Boston Bruins at least knowing they have the mental fortitude to compete. Here, we’ll break down five takeaways from the trip.
1) Jets Found Ways to Win 2 Ugly
The Jets lost 5-3 against the Hurricanes to close the trip, a game where the visitors battled hard but ultimately couldn’t overcome some unforced errors and subpar goaltending from backup David Rittich. However, thanks to two gutsy efforts preceding the loss, the road swing wasn’t disaster.
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The Jets’ pair of performances in the Sunshine State were far from perfect, but they did enough to snag an unexpected sweep. The fact they found ways to win rather than more ways to lose was a much-needed development.
After mostly controlling play against the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild prior to the road trip but losing both games, the Jets managed to grind out a win against Paul Maurice’s Panthers, even though they played worse than they did in the pair of losses.
The Jets were ahead 2-0, 3-1, and 4-2 against the Panthers, but couldn’t protect the lead in regulation, a recurring problem. They blew the 4-2 lead in the third, when the Panthers were all over the visitors despite playing their second game in as many nights. The Jets managed to weather the storm and force overtime, where Mark Scheifele played the hero by scoring the most important goal of the season thus far.
Was it a matter of the so-called “hockey gods” evening things out? Dylan DeMelo thought so.
“It’s funny, right? It’s quite obvious they took it to us there for large stretches and we find a way to win,” DeMelo said post game. “The last two games, we were on the other end of that. I think we just did a good job of finding a way to win.” (From ‘Just what they needed,’ Winnipeg Free Press, March 11, 2023.)
The Jets managed to hold onto their 3-2 third-period lead against the Lightning the following night, but just barely, with a post bailing them out in the final seconds.
The Jets built up a 3-1 lead by the early second period thanks to three straight goals but then got in their own way, giving the Lightning all the momentum and every chance to tie it up. The third goal, scored by Morgan Barron on a rebound after Brenden Dillon crashed the net, stood after being challenged for goaltender interference by Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, putting the Jets on the power play with a chance to add to the cushion.
A terrible turnover by Neal Pionk at the blue line, though, led to a shorthanded breakaway goal for Anthony Cirelli. The Jets then ran into penalty problems, committing three straight infractions and giving the Lightning’s potent power play 62 seconds of five-on-three time. The home side came up empty, though, thanks to a few big saves by Connor Hellebuyck and two posts.
In the third period, the Jets mostly kept their wits about them but failed on a couple of breakaways to regain the two-goal lead. The last few ticks of the clock were cardiac-worthy, as Victor Hedman walked right down the middle with his net empty but clanked iron.
2) Trade Deadline Acquisitions Continue to Excel
Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov have come exactly as advertised and have been two of the Jets’ best forwards since joining the team. The pair combined for four goals and two assists over the three games.
Namestnikov, who is shouldering a second-line centre role and drawing time of the power play, scored a pair of goals against the Panthers and also added an assist. He looks right at home for the team he waved his no-trade clause for.
The straightforwardness, intelligence, and versatility the well-traveled 30-year-old provides — whose acquisition from the San Jose Sharks was considered small-potatoes by most, who wanted GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to make a bigger splash — has quickly become a big asset.
Niederreiter, meanwhile, picked up a further two goals and an assist and has recorded seven points in seven games since being acquired from the Nashville Predators on Feb. 25. The man nicknamed “El Nino” has made a big impression in a short time with head coach Rick Bowness — having already jumped up to the first line — and the fan base alike. He is riding a seven-game point streak and his shooter’s mentality, nose for the net, and winner’s attitude, when all combined, have made him a massive addition to the Jets’ top six.
Niederreiter seems to be recording a milestone just about every time he steps on the ice. In just three weeks, he has recorded his 200th-career goal (scoring his first goal as a Jet on March 6) his 400th-career point (scoring against the Wild on March 8) and his 200th-career assist (drawing an assist on Saturday against the Panthers.)
3) Jets Power Play Finally Came Through After Long Drought
The Jets’ power play entered the road trip finding nothing but futility, going just two for 21 in the previous five games and more often killing momentum than grabbing it. They finally snapped out of their funk on the road trip, going three for six and looking more dangerous and less predictable.
Scheifele and Namestnikov scored on the man advantage against the Panthers and Niederreiter scored on the man advantage against the Lightning. Most notably, none of the three goals came as the result of a “perfect play” the Jets often try but fail to execute when they have possession in the offensive zone. They were agressive and eager to shoot, two things Bowness wants to see.
Playoff-calibre teams make their opponents pay for undisciplined play, but the Jets didn’t do that against the Sharks or Wild. They went a combined zero for nine in close losses that may have been wins if the power play wasn’t so disorganized.
4) Samberg Is Worthy of Bigger Role
With All-Star defenseman Josh Morrissey out of the lineup Sunday after suffering an injury against the Panthers, Dylan Samberg was placed on the top pairing alongside DeMelo. He exceeded expectations, playing 17:14 and posting strong underlying metrics.
Against the Hurricanes, with Morrissey still unable to go, Samberg retained his spot. He played 17:13, posted a plus-one rating, and was right in the thick of the action. In the early second, he crushed Jordan Martinook with a big hit, and a few minutes later, answered the bell and got the better of Stefan Noesen in a spirited fight.
After being drafted in 2017, it was always the idea that Samberg would one day become a top-four defenseman, and for a few years after being selected, he was considered one of the Jets’ best defensive prospects.
The 24-year-old’s ceiling has lowered a bit over the past few seasons in the organization’s eyes as he’s been a healthy scratch in favour of Logan Stanley or Kyle Capobianco at times this season. Samberg not only proved himself worthy of staying in the lineup for the rest of the season, but also capable of shouldering the role he was once thought to be on a trajectory for.
5) Jets Are Still Fighting for Their Playoff Lives
If you think two wins was enough to make the Jets’ postseason aspirations more comfortable or concrete, think again.
The Jets entered the road trip holding the second Western Conference Wild Card spot, four points up on the Calgary Flames and six points up on the Nashville Predators. Things have flipped below them, but remain tight.
The Jets still hold the second spot with 79 points and 14 games to go, but the Predators — who sold at the Trade Deadline, which we can now see was premature — have won three straight and are just four points back with three games in hand. The Flames, going 1-1-1 in their last three, are five points back and don’t have any games in hand.
The Jets also still have an outside chance of finishing in the top three of the Central Division, where they spent the first half of the season. They are just one point behind the Colorado Avalanche, but the Avs have three games in hand and have gone 6-3-1 in their past 10.
All three Wild Card hopefuls will be doing some scoreboard watching, to be sure, but the Jets still control their fate and need to take care of their own business. Every game will continue to be their most important game.