Jets need repeat of recent run Must match last month’s 10-4-1 mark to have shot at playoffs

BUFFALO — First, the good news: The Winnipeg Jets have gone 10-4-1 in the past 15 games, getting the kind of results they desperately need this time of year. Sure, some of those victories have been of the “hair on fire” variety, but they don’t ask how, just how many. And entering play Tuesday night, no team in the NHL had more wins, or more points, than your local hockey heroes since Feb. 27. Seriously. I’ll wait right here if you want to go look it up to ensure I’m not pulling your leg.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/03/2022 (189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

BUFFALO — First, the good news: The Winnipeg Jets have gone 10-4-1 in the past 15 games, getting the kind of results they desperately need this time of year. Sure, some of those victories have been of the “hair on fire” variety, but they don’t ask how, just how many. And entering play Tuesday night, no team in the NHL had more wins, or more points, than your local hockey heroes since Feb. 27. Seriously. I’ll wait right here if you want to go look it up to ensure I’m not pulling your leg.

Now, the bad news: Despite that month-long surge, the Jets are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference playoff picture. And with exactly 15 games remaining in the regular-season, they are likely going to need another 10-4-1 run just to sneak into the final wildcard spot. And even that might not be enough, with some projections suggesting it may take as many as 97 points to get above the line (which would mean going 11-3-1, for example).

In other words, congratulations on your recent success. Now, at bare minimum, go and do it all over again, while also hoping you get plenty of favourable results on the out-of-town scoreboard between now and the end of April. Veteran defenceman Nate Schmidt described it Tuesday as a bit of a helpless feeling, albeit a self-inflicted one given the club’s wildly inconsistent play this year. They made their bed. Now they get to toss and turn in it on a nightly basis.

Despite a month-long surge, the Jets are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference playoff picture. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

Is it possible? Sure. Realistic? The oddsmakers certainly don’t think so, with Winnipeg somewhere between slim and none when it comes to their chances of getting an invite to Lord Stanley’s spring fling. And slim might already be on his way out of town, golf clubs in tow.

Speaking of which, the Jets hit the road on Tuesday afternoon, touching down here in western New York a couple hours later to get ready for their next biggest game of the year. Once again, they have the opportunity to do something they haven’t for nearly three painfully long months — string together three consecutive victories. They have been like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football when it comes to such a feat.

One and two-game streaks simply won’t cut it when you’re trying to chase down teams ahead of you. Which is why interim coach Dave Lowry all but called Wednesday’s clash against lowly Buffalo a must-win, especially with powerhouse Toronto on deck the very next night. The Jets can’t afford to have Lucy pull the pigskin away once again.

Coach Dave Lowry all but called Wednesday’s clash against lowly Buffalo a must-win. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“It has to stay a narrow focus and we’ve talked about it,” Lowry told scribes back in Winnipeg prior to boarding the charter. “You hope that you’re going to get help along the way, but the big thing is that you’ve got to win your own games. It is a daunting task if you look at the broad scope, so you just try and stay in the moment.”

Looking at the remaining schedule, the Jets have six games remaining against non-playoff teams, and nine against post-season contenders. That imbalance makes it even more important not to surrender valuable points against pretenders like Buffalo, the way Winnipeg did just last week in an ugly 5-2 loss against Ottawa. There’s been several similar stinkers this season, including a 4-2 setback on home ice to the Sabres on Dec. 14 which would ultimately be the last straw, and the last game, for beloved bench boss Paul Maurice.

“You hope that you’re going to get help along the way, but the big thing is that you’ve got to win your own games. It is a daunting task if you look at the broad scope, so you just try and stay in the moment.” – Interim coach Dave Lowry

It says here the Jets need to win at least five of those six tilts against Buffalo, Detroit, Ottawa, Montreal, Seattle and Philadelphia — a clean sweep would be even better — then find a way to win at least five of the nine they’ll play against Toronto, Los Angeles, Colorado, Florida, Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers, Carolina, Colorado again and then Calgary.

Lowry, ever the optimist, suggested Tuesday the Jets still control their own fate. “We’ve just got to play and win our games,” he insisted. No question winning the remaining 15 games would result in playing meaningful spring hockey, but running the table is probably not realistic. Fact is, there’s now very little margin for error.

But to Winnipeg’s credit, they’ve given themselves a fighting chance, which didn’t look very likely just a few weeks ago. A 4-10-1 record since Feb. 27, for example, would have produced a very different narrative. But there is no time now to get comfortable or content.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS Ottawa Senators’ Colin White (36) scores the game-winning goal against Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) as Josh Morrissey (44) defends during third-period NHL action in Winnipeg last week.

“We’ve got to pick up even more,” said Schmidt.

Winnipeg dropped to 13-10-5 under Maurice following that loss to Buffalo. Since then, they’ve gone 19-15-5 under Lowry, who has shown he isn’t afraid to try some new things in the name of getting more out of his players.

The most recent example of that is breaking up Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, something rarely done around here (unless injury/illness/suspension necessitated it). His goal was to try and balance the offence a little better, and the Jets have won both games they’ve been apart. Lowry also inserted Ville Heinola in for the struggling Logan Stanley last game, and will keep the smooth-skating Finn in the lineup against the Sabres.

Lowry has also been pushing the right buttons in overtime lately, his team finding a way to grab the bonus point in three consecutive games that required more than 60 minutes. Now if only they could go back in time and turn a few of those 10 beyond-regulation defeats into victories — only Anaheim, Montreal and Philadelphia, all with 11, have more — and Winnipeg would actually be the hunted, not the hunter.

Expect goalie Connor Hellebuyck to see a lot of action coming up. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Expect Connor Hellebuyck, already the busiest goalie in the league this year, to continue to be leaned on heavily. That could include playing both back-to-back games on this road trip, and likely approaching 70 starts (in 82 games) once the dust finally settles. Backup Eric Comrie has been solid in spot duty, but it’s clear the Jets feel they are either going to swim, or sink, with their No. 1 netminder.

Perhaps it will indeed be a case of too little, too late, and a late run will turn out to be nothing more than a mirage that provided some false hope to a frustrated fan base. Or maybe they really can beat the long odds and do something magical. We’ll soon find out.

Whether the news ultimately ends up being good or bad for the Jets, one thing is certain. There is going to be plenty to talk about down the stretch.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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