Jets’ once-sure playoff hopes hanging by a thread
Stars need to elevate play if team is to have chance at post-season
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Welcome to “Fort Liquordale” as it’s come to be known this time of year, with spring break in full swing and the sandy beaches and sweaty bars jam-packed with thousands of wild and crazy visitors looking to let loose.
The Winnipeg Jets are on scene, too. You’ll excuse them if they’re not exactly in a celebratory mood these days. The party poopers flew into Florida on Thursday afternoon clinging perilously to a playoff spot that once seemed like a lock.
Their game, just like their travel itinerary, has gone south.
Just two wins in the last 11 outings have washed away most of the good they accomplished earlier in the year and no doubt have many fans trying to drown their collective sorrows. From key injuries to scoring droughts to their No. 1 goaltender suddenly springing a leak, everything that could go wrong seemingly is going wrong.
They’re losing games when they play poorly, with a growing list of groaners on the recent resume. And they’re finding ways to come up empty even when there’s plenty to like, such as Wednesday’s 4-2 gut punch at the hands of the Minnesota Wild.
Now comes a hellacious three-game road trip which feels like it could be season-defining, especially with just 17 contests remaining and the margin of error getting increasingly narrow with each passing day.
First up is a desperate Florida Panthers team on Saturday night, who need every point they can muster right now. Then the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, who should be in a surly mood after some recent struggles. And then the potent Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday to wrap it up.
“If you’ve got to do it the hard way, we’re going to have to do it the hard way,” a stoic head coach Rick Bowness said following the latest setback at Canada Life Centre.
“We’ve got to win some games on the road. But the most important thing is to keep the effort and play like we did (Wednesday). That’s the most important thing. Eventually, that puck is going to go in. We’ve seen that two games in a row that we dominated the game and lost by a goal (not including an empty-netter). That’s hockey.”
Whether Winnipeg is still holding onto the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference — or have been passed by one or both of the hard-charging Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators — by the time their charter brings them home in the wee hours next Wednesday morning remains to be seen.
One thing is clear: This team is going nowhere if it’s biggest and brightest stars don’t elevate their games.
I’m looking at you, Mark Scheifele. You too, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. And, yes, even you, Connor Hellebuyck. We can debate about who’s playing on the fourth line or the third defence pairing until we’re blue in the face. Ultimately, it comes down to this core, and whether it can collectively find another level.
“There’s a lot of fight. We’re going to stick with it. We’re going to keep pushing. There’s no quit in here,” Connor insisted Wednesday night.
“Keep your head up. Stick with it. We have a lot of veterans in this room. We know that we play that game for a majority of the year, we take that over an 82-game schedule we’re going to score a lot of goals. So, we got to take that confidence and build on that going into this road trip here.”
Sure, the Jets mostly played a solid game, including firing 48 shots at Wild goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. However, we’re well past the stage of silver linings and moral victories here. Winnipeg needs results, and fast. It’s not helping that so many players, including Connor, have gone so quiet as of late.
Consider this: He has just one goal in the last eight games, while Scheifele has only two goals. Not surprisingly, Winnipeg has gone 1-5-2 with their top scorers mostly held in check.
Wheeler has none in the last 11. Ehlers has been blanked in the last seven, with just one in the last 18. Pierre-Luc Dubois, prior to suffering an upper-body injury that now has him sidelined indefinitely along with fellow top-six forward Cole Perfetti, had two in the last 11.
It would be one thing if the Jets were getting production from the bottom six to make up for this cold snap. They are not.
Adam Lowry has one goal in his last 38 games. Morgan Barron has one in 23. Mason Appleton has one in 12. I could keep going down the list, including the likes of fourth-liners Saku Maenalanen, Kevin Stenlund and David Gustafsson, and recent healthy scratches like Sam Gagner, Karson Kuhlman and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, but you get the picture. It’s ugly.
Put it this way: Trade additions Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov have, arguably, been Winnipeg’s two most notable skaters since joining the lineup. They sure could use some company.
It would be another thing if the Jets were getting stellar goaltending, allowing them to scratch out low-scoring victories to make up for this offensive cold snap. But they are not.
Hellebuyck has been lit up for 22 goals in his last five starts, two of which he didn’t even finish after getting an early hook. Several of those pucks that eluded him had a certain foul odour, including Wednesday’s game-winner by Ryan Hartman that went right through the five-hole. Backup goaltender David Rittich has been spotty, too.
Has Hellebuyck simply run out of gas? His 49 starts this year are tied for most in the league, and no masked man has played more minutes, or faced more rubber, since he began his NHL career in 2015-16.
All of it adds up to a team that appears to be in big, big trouble.
“We’re still sitting in a playoff spot. Those other teams still have to win games to catch us,” said Bowness, who is clearly trying to maintain the positive vibes which were so plentiful earlier in the year when everything was going right.
“We know what we’re up against. We haven’t lost that eighth spot right now so we have to fight to keep it.”
The Jets have collected just 12 points in their last 17 games overall (5-10-2). It says here they’ll need at least 18 in their final 17 games to hold on to their playoff spot. Possibly 19 or 20.
A big ask, for sure, especially given the immense challenge staring them in the face. They need to find a way to bring something home from this trip other than a tan. Otherwise, their post-season hopes will be as dubious as some of the decisions that drunken revellers will be making in Florida this weekend.
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.