It’s time for struggling Jets to be accountable: Wheeler
Success imperative on three-game road swing
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The Winnipeg Jets are feeling the heat. We’re not talking about the temperature in sunny south Florida that surged to an unseasonably high 30 C by Friday afternoon.
“Great teams are forged in fire,” veteran winger Blake Wheeler said as he stepped outside the Florida Panthers practice facility following his team’s hour-long skate.
“So, it’s a great opportunity for us to stick together and deal with some adversity.”
The Jets (36-26-3) have that in spades right now, with just two wins to show for the last 11 games. Although they currently occupy the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators are hot on their heels with less than five weeks to go in the regular season.
“Sticking together. Not pointing fingers, just taking responsibility for what’s transpired the last little bit,” Wheeler, the former captain, said when asked what is the key to getting back on track.
“Obviously, when you’re going through a tough stretch, you’ve got to walk that fine line of squeezing too hard and pushing too hard and still bringing confidence to the table. When you’re playing your best hockey, you don’t feel like you’re forcing it or trying hard. You’re just kind of able to go out and play. It’s kind of a tight-rope act, but I think for the veteran guys on the team, it’s a matter of giving a lot of confidence and enthusiasm in the dressing room.”
The Jets can use all the help they can get on this critical three-game trip, starting with what should be an equally desperate Panthers squad on Saturday night. Head coach Paul Maurice’s crew is currently below the Eastern Conference post-season line, trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins by four points (prior to their game Friday night against the Chicago Blackhawks).
“We’re going to be watching that game very closely,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said of the unique situation of having three NHL teams in the same city at one time (Florida, Chicago and Winnipeg).
No doubt the Jets hope they can catch a tired Panthers club which will be playing for a second straight night, albeit on home ice. After that, it’s on to Tampa Bay on Sunday (the Lightning host the Blackhawks on Saturday night), then wrap up Tuesday in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“(Players) know the importance of the weekend, clearly. We’re going to have to get a couple wins here,” said Bowness.
There are no moral victories, especially at this time of year, but the Jets have liked their last two outings. They carried the play against both the San Jose Sharks (a 3-2 overtime loss on Monday) and the Minnesota Wild (a 4-2 loss on Wednesday).
“The guys know that we’re playing a lot better the last couple of games,” said Bowness. “No one is happy that we lost three of those points when we played so well, clearly. But the most important thing is feel good about how the team game was, and the team games was very good for both of those games.”
The Jets are once again dealing with injury issues, with centre Pierre-Luc Dubois ruled out for both games in Florida with an upper-body ailment. Forward Cole Perfetti is also out of the lineup long term with a suspected shoulder issue.
“We probably played our best hockey, ironically, when we weren’t fully healthy in the early part of the season,” Wheeler said. “It’s nothing new for our team. We’ve been battling through it all year and it’s obviously difficult when you’re losing the calibre of players that we’re missing right now. But it’s just a matter of guys are getting opportunities now.”
And capitalizing on those opportunities.
The Jets simply aren’t scoring enough lately, with the power play going ice cold and several top players such as Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele snakebitten. Throw in a lack of secondary offence that has been an issue all year, and some recent struggles from No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck, and you have the recipe for recent struggles.
“You need them at their best, both on the ice and off the ice, in the room, in practice, on the bench,” Bowness said of the club’s difference-makers, who he expects will quickly elevate their games as the pressure really ramps up now.
“The team has responded when we’ve had bad games or bad periods. That has to come from the leadership in the room.”
Wheeler, 36, is on record as saying he knows his time to win is fleeting, with one more year left on his contract after this season. Allowing a once-promising season to circle the drain would be tough to swallow.
“It’s just a lot of opportunity ahead of you. It’s exciting to be in the conversation for the playoffs and potentially having a chance to go on a run,” he said of the current mindset.
“It’s a tale of… every stretch of the season is different. There are things in the first part of the season that we liked but it’s a different time of the year and teams are a lot different. It’s kind of ramping up to that playoff intensity. It’s a big stretch for us right now.”
Winnipeg spent much of Friday’s on-ice session focusing on the sputtering power play, and Bowness saw signs of progress.
“It’ll be up to them, really. You watch them (in practice), the puck was snapped around, they were moving it, and they were scoring goals,” said Bowness.
“We get in the games and we slow it down. We’ve got to take our practice mentality into the game and be a little more desperate with a little more urgency. They can do it. They do it in practice, and we’re pressuring the heck out of them, and they were moving the puck. We get in the games and we slow it up too much. We hang onto it and we’re not moving to support each other. So, when I say it’s up to them, they have to do the things we’re telling them to do in practice in a game.”
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.