Jets confident they’ll return to winning ways ‘Best hockey still ahead of us,’ says Bowness
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Move it. Or lose it.
The Winnipeg Jets know they have to get going, in more ways than one, if they want to break out of a funk that has plenty of alarm bells ringing around here. Just two wins in the last six games, and several lethargic outings, are in sharp contrast to the solid foundation they had built in the first half of the season.
“We’re just not moving. That’s the biggest thing,” veteran forward Blake Wheeler said, following Friday’s practice at Canada Life Centre. “It’s just a lack of aggressiveness all over the ice.”
To be clear, the Jets (31-18-1) are still in good shape despite the recent stumbles. They looked more pretender than contender in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Buffalo, in which they mustered only 21 shots (and two late goals) to make the game appear closer than it really was.
“Can we play better? Yeah we can. Have we? Yeah. Will we again? Absolutely we will,” said Jets coach Rick Bowness.
“We (had) won eight of nine. In the last six games, a couple of bad games in there, but it’s just a couple of bad games. We know what we’re capable of. Can we push the pace harder in games? Absolutely we can. We’ll get through this. I have no doubt. There is a good hockey team in there. Look where we still are, and we still haven’t played great. As I told them today, when we really get going again, I think the best hockey is still ahead of us, and it has to be.”
Winnipeg has two more chances to ramp it up before an 11-day break which includes the All-Star game. They host Philadelphia on Saturday (6 p.m.), followed by St. Louis on Monday (7 p.m.)
“When we’re not moving, all of a sudden those plays, you’re seeing them, but they’re not quite happening at the same rate they would when you’re in motion,” said Wheeler. “And I think the plays that are being turned over right now are plays that we’ve been making all year. Even when they get knocked down or there are turnovers, we’ve been on our toes and we’ve been aggressive enough that we’ve been able to cover up for them. That’s what we need to get back to.”
Bowness had a lengthy meeting with his players Friday morning prior to hitting the ice, discussing recent events and how they can get back to playing the type of hockey that had made them so successful. One theme that kept coming up was fatigue.
“There are times where it’s been long schedule, a busy couple of months here for us, certainly a tough stretch on the road,” said alternate captain Josh Morrissey. “I think at the end of the day it’s about understanding some nights when maybe you don’t have your best stuff and trying to manage the game a little bit better, which we didn’t do a great job of.”
The Jets crammed 16 games into the month of December, and have already played 13 times in January. The last dozen of those have come over a 21-day stretch.
“I think there’s a human element to this,” said Wheeler. “There’s definitely a wear and tear factor, but at the same time, we’re a team that really thrives on playing aggressively. And our ability to attack and sort of make teams play under those terms. I think that’s what’s made us difficult to play against this year. I think we’re being a little bit passive. With that being said we’ve got two games to go before a long break, so no excuses here to not play that style again.”
A chance to have a full practice, as they did on Friday, is a rarity.
“I’ve been in the league a long time, but this is a grind. This is new for me, too,” said Bowness.
“I’m learning a lot about playing out of Winnipeg again with 32 teams. The travel has evolved, and the little practice time you have is unreal, but then again, you learn to live with it, you learn to find solutions through all of that. I’ve got to find better solutions for the guys. That’s on me, as well. Learning this location in the league and the travel that comes and the condensed schedule, it’s been an eye-opener. But again, we’re going through this, we’ve always got to find solutions.”
In their four losses over the past six, the Jets have scored just five combined goals. They scored 10 in the two wins, including a 5-3 effort on Sunday in Philadelphia. That would suggest there’s some Jekyll and Hyde creeping into their games.
“I’ve been talking to the players a lot. It’s hard to get to the top of this league where we were, and it’s harder to stay there. Everyone is gunning for you. It’s some harsh reminders as we go through this — that’s what we’re facing every night,” said Bowness.
“They all know when we’re playing well, what we look like. They all know that right now, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re not looking like we know how we can look, how we can play. There is an honest recognition of that. If they were unsure of what we look like when we’re playing well, that’s a whole other problem.”
It’s likely not a coincidence that some of Winnipeg’s issues came around the same time they got a major injection of talent back in the lineup, with Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Cole Perfetti and Nate Schmidt all returning from injury earlier this month. A resilient team that had done so well grinding out games suddenly seemed to start relying on being able to “out-skill” opponents.
“The foundation of how we need to play is in place, we’ve lost it a little bit — no question — but they know where that foundation is and they know we’re going to have to work harder to get that back,” said Bowness.
“The infusion of talent, it brings different elements for sure. The skill level goes up. We just have to get back to defence first, five guys working to get the puck, then the skill level takes over. I’m always saying every line looks the same, but that’s only without the puck. With the puck, the whole different skill set takes over.”
Morrissey said one thing his team hasn’t lost is confidence.
“The keys that we’ve talked about all year, when we look good and when we’re a team that I think we can play with the top teams in the league — and we are a top team in the league — it’s about our speed, our aggressiveness, our pressure and our pace and our confidence,” he said.
“When we’re at our best, we have a confidence, we have a swagger about ourselves and (Thursday) night we didn’t play with a lot of those things that I mentioned. That’s what it is about getting back to. You can look at the Xs and Os all you want, but that’s the identity of our team and when we play like that, we can play with anybody.”
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.