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RALEIGH — The schedule says it's Game 50 of the regular season. The Winnipeg Jets would be wise to treat it like it's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
Which is to say that Tuesday night's tilt here in Raleigh should be no ordinary mid-January affair for a reeling squad that needs to find a way to stop the bleeding. With just five wins in the past 16 contests — hardly a small sample size considering that's 20 per cent of the entire campaign — the 25-20-4 Jets are in grave danger of quickly being left in the Western Conference playoff dust.
And they're not inspiring much confidence lately that they have the ability to get back on track. Quite the contrary, actually.
After a perplexing 7-1 loss on home ice to Tampa Bay Friday night was followed up by a crummy 5-2 defeat in Chicago Sunday night, it's safe to say this team looks nothing like an actual contender right now. Both the Lightning and the Blackhawks had played the previous night and then travelled in the wee hours, and they throttled the well-rested Jets by a combined score of 12-3.
As concerning as those results are, the fact that coach Paul Maurice and his players appear to have no idea why it has gone south is especially troubling — or, more likely, they're not willing to share it publicly. They can talk all they want about staying in the fight and trying to do the right things, but until some tangible results are seen on the ice, it's all quite meaningless.
Which is why the next two days are so crucial. With back-to-back games in Carolina and Columbus before an eight-day hockey hiatus, there's a heightened sense of urgency. Not only are the Jets at risk of falling further behind the eight clubs currently ahead of them and occupying playoff spots, several teams — Chicago, Nashville and Minnesota — are all in hot pursuit and threatening to soon overtake them.
"Two huge games for us… we need the points," the straight-shooting Andrew Copp said following Monday's practice at PNC Arena.
No kidding. Let's just say that how the Jets fare against the Hurricanes and the Blue Jackets should tell us a lot about their current state. Another no-show or two suggests they've emotionally checked out and that major changes are needed.
It's not out of the realm of possibly that coming up empty in the next 48 hours could have the Jets sagging near the very bottom of both the Western Conference and overall NHL standings when they return to action Jan. 31 against the Boston Bruins.
But a pair of strong efforts, while hardly cause for championship parade planning, would at least have everyone stepping away from the panic button.
"You can go home feeling you had a real nice road trip if we can tighten our game up a little bit," Maurice said Monday of the immediate opportunity staring them in the face over the next two nights.
It's not out of the realm of possibly that coming up empty in the next 48 hours could have the Jets sagging near the very bottom of both the Western Conference and overall NHL standings when they return to action Jan. 31 against the Boston Bruins, followed by another game the following night against Stanley Cup champion St. Louis.
And just what exactly would that look like around here? How could the organization justify a contract extension to Maurice, who is in the last year of his current deal? Try selling that to the legions of frustrated fans out there, many of whom are up for season-ticket renewals at the end of this year.
How would that reflect on general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who is spending to near the cap after two consecutive playoff seasons, but has tried only to patch the glaring holes in his lineup, so far, with a handful of waiver-wire pickups such as Luca Sbisa and Carl Dahlstrom.
And what would it mean for the core of key players — Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Connor Hellebuyck — who have all signed massive contract extensions to remain in Winnipeg, with the expectation that their window to capture a championship was going to remain open for the foreseeable future?
I know there are some who believe the immediate answer is to send Maurice packing. They've seen a wave of coaching changes this year — now up to seven — and wonder what's taking so long in Winnipeg. Especially when a team such as Vegas, which is ahead of the Jets in the standings, makes such a move. Clearly they must care more about winning than they do here, right?
I don't believe canning Maurice at this point would change much, if anything, because I see no evidence he's "lost the room" or that the players have stopped playing for him. Whoever is behind the bench still has to deal with the roster as currently configured, and it's becoming increasingly clear that it isn't nearly good enough.
Cheveldayoff told me last month, during a sit-down interview, that he made a promise to many of those skaters to do everything possible to make a legitimate run every season, but where's the evidence of that right now?
That's why I'd suggest it's Cheveldayoff's seat that should be hottest right now. No, I don't believe he's in danger of losing his job, but I also don't think he can continue to stand pat. He should be furiously working the phones, trying to find a deal or two that can actually move the needle and improve the fortunes of a sagging club that is clearly in need of a lifeline.
"With the injuries we’ve had on our back end and up front, players that have wanted ice time are going to get ice time," Maurice said Monday.
And there's the problem — we've already seen the product of players being asked to play above their limits, and it's not very pretty.
Now, with shutdown centre Adam Lowry out for at least a month, the immediate road ahead gets even bumpier. To me, that's pretty much the coach telling his GM he'd like a little help here.
If the Jets want to make the playoffs for a third-straight year, they're going to have to start approaching each game like it's do or die. And from the general manager on down, it's high time they start acting like their season is on the line. Because it is.
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.
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