PITTSBURGH, PA — They knew the bus was coming. They saw the bus coming from miles away. And then the Winnipeg Jets stood still and watched the black-and-gold Greyhound that is the Pittsburgh Penguins plaster them all over the highway.
And just to hammer home a point to the rest of the National Hockey League, the Pens backed up over the Jets and drove over them all over again.
Yes, in a contest the Jets were absolutely desperate to win, they were little more than speed bumps in an 8-4 loss to the Penguins that opened even more eyes as to Pittsburgh’s firepower and Winnipeg’s continuing inadequacies on the road.
As a result, the Jets’ playoff dream is slowly fading as they remain 10th in the Eastern Conference with a 34-31-8 record — four points behind the eighth-place Washington Capitals and two back of ninth-place Buffalo Sabres with just nine regular-season games remaining.
Just to keep things juicy for a few more days, the Jets are in Washington on Friday.
"It’s demoralizing, but we don’t have time to be demoralized," said coach Claude Noel. "We’re going to have to find a way to get our self esteem up and re-energize to play Washington. That’s a huge game for us. That’s really going to define where we are."
What the Jets are, however, continues to be more and more evident. They are awful on the road — now 11-20-4 — and when it comes to playing star-studded squads like the Penguins, simply don’t have the firepower to match.
And the evidence is all over the scoresheet:
— Evgeni Malkin, two goals, three assists for his fourth five-point game of the season. Malkin, we should add, has three goals and eight assists in three games against the Jets this season.
— James Neal, three goals in the first two periods, giving him 35 of the season.
— And Sidney Crosby — remember him? — set up four goals in his first home game since early December while centring the Pens’ THIRD line.
"Obviously their depth is their strength," said Jet captain Andrew Ladd. "Right down the middle it’s tough to play against that. At the same time we knew that coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a challenge and that we needed to play our top game and we needed it out of everybody.
"It just seem like they scored every chance they got. It doesn’t make it any easier. It’s tough. But we’ve got to regroup quick here and get ready for Washington."
Interestingly, the only Jets with a plus-rating were fourth liners Ben Maxwell (+1) and Tim Stapleton (who scored once and was +1) and recent call-up Spencer Machaek (two assists, +2).
"It’s really frustrating," said Jim Slater, who had the first goal of the night for the Jets. "They’re a pretty dominant team offensively and they showed it tonight. They kind of had their way with us and put up some key goals and key times.
"It’s not easy to shake off a loss like that, especially with where we’re at in the season. Obviously we have a big game against Washington coming up, but this one definitely hurts."
The Jets also got two goals from Bryan Little, his 20th and 21st of the season, but that was of little solace to the centre afterward. Like most of the Jets who spoke afterward, he spit out the same party line: let this one linger for a spell and then get ready for the Caps.
As the old saying goes, when it’s do or die, there’s no in between.
"We’ve got to learn from it, playing against one of the better offences in the league," said Little. "We’ve got to learn how to play better defensively and take time and space away. But, at the same time, you can’t be moping around. We’ve got a big game coming up against Washington. We’ve got two days to get this out of our heads.
"Tonight probably wasn’t desperation mode but now I think we realize we only have so many games left. It’s a big one against Washington coming up. This road trip could determine whether we’re in or we’re out."