Fleury the difference in loss to Wild
Bowness happy with effort as Jets drop key game in hunt for playoff spot
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If the Winnipeg Jets end up missing the playoffs, Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild might prove to be the game where a once far-fetched thought really started coming into focus.
On a night the home team desperately needed a favourable result, an old nemesis once again had their number. Marc-Andre Fleury turned back the clock to the 2018 Western Conference Final, stopping 46 of 48 shots to give his club a pair of valuable points at Canada Life Centre.
“It’s one of the best games we’ve played all year. We dominated the game,” said Jets coach Rick Bowness.
“Lots of scoring chances, Fleury was outstanding, a lot of loose pucks we couldn’t get our sticks to, but that’s one of the best games we’ve played all year. If we play like that, we’ll take it. Some nights you just don’t get any puck luck and right now we’re not getting any luck. But I’ll take that effort and the way we played against anybody all year.”
It was vintage “Flower,” with only Logan Stanley and Nino Niederreiter able to beat him. And it was all the more striking with Winnipeg’s struggling starter, Connor Hellebuyck, beaten three times on just 22 shots including the eventual game-winner he will want back.
“Had a lot of shots, good chances, but at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, we’ve got to find a way to win,” said forward Kyle Connor.
“It definitely sucks. But that’s hockey.”
Winnipeg falls to 36-26-3, with just two wins to show for the last 11 games. Although they remain eighth in the Western Conference, holding down the second and final wildcard spot, both Calgary (four points) and Nashville (six points, with four games in hand) are within striking distance.
Minnesota improves to 37-21-7, including a scorching 9-0-2 in the last 11, pulling into a first-place tie with the Dallas Stars in the Central Division. Both teams are six points clear of the Jets.
1. Hellebuyck is a big reason the Jets are even in the position they are, where a prolonged stretch of overall poor play still has them in a playoff spot.
But there’s no question he’s fighting the puck right now. Hellebuyck came into this game having surrendered 19 goals over his last four starts, which represents the worst four-game stretch of his career. He didn’t even finish two of those contests, getting the early hook.
It arguably went from bad to worse in this one.
With the Jets owning a 10-2 shot advantage late in the first period, Marcus Foligno wired a wrist shot just under the crossbar to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Fleury continued to stand on his head, and numerous other body parts, as he kept the Jets at bay. Frederick Gaudreau made it 2-0 at 7:06 of the middle frame, and you could feel the air being let out of the downtown rink.
It pretty much felt like game over, with the way Fleury was playing combined with the fact Minnesota had just eclipsed 198 consecutive minutes without surrendering a single goal, dating back to last Thursday’s first period in Vancouver.
2. But then along came Stanley, of all people, the towering 6-foot-7 defenceman with two career goals on his resume in 109 previous games. Just 30 seconds after Gaudreau had doubled the lead, Stanley got his stick on a loose puck to give Winnipeg some hope.
It would be short-lived.
Just 55 seconds later, Ryan Hartman beat Hellebuyck with a wrist shot that you would expect the former Vezina Trophy winner to stop 99 times out of 100. Maybe 100. But this one went straight through his legs.
The very next Minnesota shot, a routine flipper that he handled, was met with a mock “Bronx Cheer” from some in the crowd
“He’ll figure it out. He’s a great goaltender, he’s a tremendous competitor,” said Bowness.
“You don’t normally see that puck go in the net. Right now, that’s what’s happening. We’re giving up a goal like that and we’re losing by one goal.”
3. If there’s been one bright spot over the recent stretch, it’s been the play of Niederreiter, who always seems to be around the net and isn’t afraid to do what so many of his teammates are — shoot the puck.
He made it a one-goal game at 17:15 of the second period, scoring his second in five games since being acquired by the Jets in a trade with the Nashville Predators. It was also the 400th point of Niederreiter’s career,
Winnipeg came close to tying it before the period was over, buzzing around the Minnesota net, and the Jets certainly had a sizeable advantage in many departments.
Consider this: Through two periods the shots were 34-15, and Natural Stat Trick had high-danger chances at a whopping 18-5 in favour of the Jets. But the Wild, who had played the night before in St. Paul (a 1-0 shootout loss to Calgary) had the advantage in the one area that counts the most.
“Just lots of positive chatter. We knew we were right there,” Stanley said of the mood in the locker room. “We wanted to keep pushing and trying to get that third goal, but unfortunately, we didn’t.”
A Mason Shaw empty-netter with 38 seconds left sealed the victory. Minnesota is now 24-0-1 when they lead after 40 minutes. They are also a perfect 3-0-0 against Winnipeg this year, outscoring the Jets 14-3.
4. We have to again mention the power play, which has gone ice cold in recent weeks. Winnipeg went 0-for-3 — two nights after going 0-for-6 in an overtime loss to San Jose.
They always seem to be looking for the perfect play, with pass after pass after frustrating pass, often to no avail.
”They’ve just got to get one,” said Bowness. “They had a couple of shots but not enough. Six minutes of that, we need to generate more offence.”
Yes, they put 48 pucks on net in this one, which was a marked improvement. But there were also times where the only thing they shot was themselves in the foot, including a first-period three-on-one rush where they didn’t even force Fleury to make a save.
5. Stanley was involved in another significant play.
Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota’s top scorer and one of the most dynamic players in the league, left the game with an obvious lower-body issue after Stanley fell on him awkwardly while trying to hit him in the third period.
Kaprizov did the splits before the full force of Stanley came down on him.
“He stopped and I tried to finish my check on him,” said Stanley. “I wasn’t expecting him to go down. It’s just an unfortunate play.”
On the topic of injuries, the Jets were without one of their top players in Pierre-Luc Dubois, who missed three games last week with a lower-body injury, returned to play Monday against San Jose, but is now apparently dealing with an upper-body issue. There’s no timeline for a return.
UP NEXT: Buckle up, folks. It’s not getting any easier. The Jets now hit the road for three straight games starting Saturday in Florida against a desperate Panthers club. Then it’s on to Tampa Bay the next night, followed by a Tuesday date with the powerful Carolina Hurricanes.
After that, the Jets return for one home game — with the NHL’s runaway best team, the Boston Bruins — before going back on the road for two more.
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.