Urgency has to be there: Bowness
Every game from here on in is going to be a playoff game, says Jets coach
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NASHVILLE — Rick Bowness didn’t mince words when asked what he expected from Saturday’s tilt against the Nashville Predators — the first of back-to-back road games over what will be an important weekend for his Winnipeg Jets.
Bowness was just moments removed from a 3-0 home loss to the Boston Bruins Thursday in what was the Jets’ second straight defeat. They dropped a 5-3 decision against the Hurricanes in Carolina on Tuesday after opening the recent three-game road trip with a pair of wins over the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Both teams will be very desperate. That’s the mentality that’s going to be there,” Bowness said. “There had better be a lot of urgency in every shift and every detail that we talk about. The urgency and the desperation, it has to be there.”
Winnipeg can’t afford to dip any further, especially against a Predators team that is nipping at its heels in the Western Conference standings. Knowing time is of the essence, the Jets head coach wanted to make it clear to his players the magnitude of the situation they find themselves in.
Heading into Friday’s NHL action, the Jets (38-28-3) sit uncomfortably in the second wild-card playoff spot. Winnipeg is four points back of the Seattle Kraken, who have a game in hand, for the first wild-card and three points up on the Calgary Flames, who are the first team outside the playoff line.
Then there’s the Predators, who are one point back of the Flames and four points from catching the Jets. Nashville has played four fewer games than both Winnipeg and Calgary, meaning there’s enough runway to make up that ground if they can continue to string together victories.
“We clearly know where we are in the standings and a couple teams chasing us — Nashville obviously is one of them. Every game from here on in is going to be a playoff game until we see an ‘X’ beside our name that we made the playoffs,” Bowness said following Friday’s practice, a short time before the team boarded a plane to Music City. “It would be a huge mistake on our part not to take that approach. We’re taking every game like it’s a playoff game right now.”
Nashville has been somewhat of an enigma in recent weeks. Indeed, given their current circumstances, it’s hard to explain how the Predators keeping piling up the points, earning at least one in nine of their last 12 games (8-3-1).
After all, the Predators were sellers at the NHL trade deadline earlier this month, shipping away several key players, including forward Nino Niederreiter to the Jets (Niederreiter has four goals and seven points in nine games for Winnipeg). They’ve also been without two of their best forwards in Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen, both of whom have been out for long stretches owing to injury, missing the last 15 and 11 games, respectively.
While the Predators’ success might seem puzzling to most, it’s not nearly as unthinkable inside the Jets locker room. As Central Division rivals, Winnipeg is very familiar with Nashville and the challenges that come with playing at a raucous Bridgestone Arena.
“A lot of really good players on the team. A lot of history of success down there. No surprise whatsoever,” said Jets forward Blake Wheeler. “They’re always a tough opponent, always a tough building, we have a lot of respect for those guys.”
Meanwhile, the Jets have struggled to string together any meaningful runs since winning eight of nine games between Dec. 29 and Jan. 15. Over the last two months, Winnipeg is 9-14-2.
It hasn’t been pretty, but the Jets have taken solace in a collective belief that they’ve played an improved game dating back to a 3-2 overtime loss against the visiting San Jose Sharks on March 6, even if they boast a middling record of 2-3-0 ever since.
“We’re doing a lot of good things, had a lot of great looks against historically one of the best teams of all time,” Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo said, referring to the game versus the Bruins, who pace the NHL at 51-11-5 and set a new league record for being the quickest team to reach 50 wins in a season, requiring just 64 games. “We also know we can be better in certain aspects. For us, we have to bring that same type of intensity and up it another level. We do have another level, for sure. We’re confident we’ll bring a good game (Saturday).”
A big reason for the Jets’ inconsistency is their inability to capitalize at even-strength.
Winnipeg is ranked 21st in the league with 159 even-strength goals, tied with the Colorado Avalanche. While the Avalanche have been able to help make that difference up with a strong power play, a unit ranked sixth with 52 goals, the Jets haven’t been as effective on the man-advantage, scoring five fewer goals despite playing two more games.
The Jets could get a major offensive boost with the return of centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has missed the last five games with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Dubois practised in full on Friday but remains a game-time decision against the Predators.
“As long as he’s close, and feels he can help the team, then he’ll play,” Bowness said. “If he feels he’s 100 per cent or close enough that he can not only play the game, but finish the game and make a contribution, then we’ll certainly let him play. That call is going to be made by him, not by us.”
It’s not as though the Jets aren’t generating chances, they’re just not finishing when they do. Opposing goalies have mostly outperformed the Jets top scorers in recent weeks and it won’t get any easier with Juuse Saros in net for the Predators.
Saros, who along with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck were the two goalies that represented the Central Division at the all-star game in January, has allowed just three goals on 74 shots in two games against the Jets this season. Winnipeg escaped with a 2-1 overtime win back on Dec. 15, with the Predators answering with a 2-1 victory in their most recent meeting Jan. 24.
“They’ve got a fantastic goalie, then you put a bunch of kids in there fighting for jobs for next year and they’re playing loose. All of a sudden you’re back in the playoff race,” Bowness said. “It’s more us that have faltered, I blame us for that, but they’re right there. They work hard. But when you have a goalie like Saros, you have a chance to win every game.”
The Jets wrap up the quick two-game road trip against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.