It didn’t look, or feel, like when they met two springs ago for a memorable seven-game playoff series, but there was still plenty on the line, and a wee bit of desperation in the air, as the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators faced off Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place.
Start with the fact both teams are no longer NHL powerhouses and are currently on the outside looking in, desperately needing to string together some wins ASAP if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup starting in April. And, at least on this night, it was the Predators who took the bigger step in that direction, skating away with a 2-1 overtime victory.
Mikael Granlund one-timed a feed from Mattias Ekholm at 1:11 of the three-on-three skills session to give the visitors two big points in the Western Conference standings. The Jets barely touched the puck in those 71 seconds, and Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey got stuck out for an extended shift while the Predators were able to get a change in and take advantage of the tired trio, including a costly backhand pass attempt from Morrissey to Scheifele that led directly to the game-winner.
"It’s why the faceoff is so critical. Mark (Scheifele) breaks his stick and when we do get it back, we can’t mount anything, we’re right at the end of (the long shift)," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said of what went wrong on the key play of the night.
"I think Mark’s looking for a change. He’s not necessarily looking for that puck back. Josh didn’t really have a place to go with the thing. Once he wants to kick it back to him... Hindsight, we could have probably recovered to the back of the net, switched one or two out, and then come up differently."
Winnipeg falls to 26-23-5, while Nashville improves to 25-20-7. They, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, are tied for ninth in the Western Conference, three points back of the Calgary Flames for the final wild-card playoff spot.
"Both teams worked really hard. It’s two good hockey teams, it’s two rivals going at it. Obviously it sucks to not get the points, but you don’t win every game," said Jets forward Mason Appleton, who scored the only goal for his club.
The problem for Winnipeg is that they haven’t been winning many games at all of late, now 1-5-1 in their last seven. They were looking to build off a modest one-game winning streak — hey, they’ll take whatever they can get these days — but will have to settle for two straight games with at least a point.
"It started even before these last two games, and it’s something that we’ve got to keep building on. Going out there and playing our asses off every single game is how we have to do it. That’s been giving us chances to win, so that’s our game plan," Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers said of the mindset.
Winnipeg has scored just 14 goals in their last seven games, with two of those being empty-netters in their lone triumph during that stretch, 5-2 over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday. That’s not nearly enough offence for a team that is supposed to have no trouble in that department.
"We’re just competing hard defensively. I’m not saying we haven’t in the past, but I think there’s a ton of pride in our game defensively. That’s why we’ve had so many tight games lately. When you defend the right way, that’s when you should generate more offence and score more goals. But they’re tough to come by. They’ll start falling for us," said Appleton.
A big part of that has been a woeful power play. Winnipeg came up empty on three chances Tuesday, with the top unit of Scheifele, Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Neal Pionk and Kyle Connor and playing more than five of the six minutes, and the second trio barely touching the ice.
But as the old saying goes, defence is supposed to win championships, and both the Jets and Predators were doing their best to bottle each other up and clamp down. In that sense, there was a playoff-style feel to it all.
Appleton got the Jets off to a strong start when he took a pass from Ehlers, streaking down the left wing and cutting hard to the net, where he poked the puck past Predators goalie Juuse Saros. Appleton’s goal, just 2:46 into the game, was his third of the year.
"Fly (Ehlers) made a good play off the wall, and it was kind of a little bit of a two on one. You get the defender’s hip, you want to take the puck to the net and then you read off his stick and where the goalie’s playing it. I was just fortunate to squeak it five-hole," said Appleton.
It’s the fourth straight game Winnipeg has struck first. However, they have only one victory in those contests.
"We know that you can’t come out and not be ready for a game, you gotta be ready from the start, and we’ve been able to do that. That’s something we’re going to continue to do," said Ehlers.
The Jets could have added to their lead with an early power-play chance, but they shot themselves in the foot by negating it with a penalty for having too many skaters on the ice. And, continuing the theme of getting in their own way, defencemen Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto had an on-ice mixup, which included Bitetto tripping over himself, giving the Predators a two-on-none.
Connor Hellebuyck bailed his defencemen out with a big blocker save off Nick Bonino. However, Hellebuyck couldn’t stop the Nashville forward a few minutes later, as both he and then Sbisa turned over the puck in their zone. Bonino fired his 16th of the season at 17:39 of the first period.
There’s no question several Jets blue-liners are playing above and beyond their normal level due to a number of injuries, and Sbisa and Bitetto would likely both be healthy scratches if circumstances were different. But, such is the state of a group currently without Tucker Poolman and Nathan Beaulieu due to injuries, and Dustin Byfuglien to — well, you know.
The highlight of the middle frame was Laine getting hooked on a breakaway by Nashville defenceman Jarred Tinordi and awarded a penalty shot. But his attempt to beat Saros on the backhand was denied. A strange choice, for sure, for a guy with an elite wrist shot.
It was a fairly tepid third period, with both teams not wanting to take too many chances and at least get the game to overtime.
Saros finished with 33 saves, while Hellebuyck made 34 stops.
"We had a bunch of chances but weren’t able to get it in. I think we played a really good game, we put some pressure on him. That’s how it goes sometimes," said Ehlers.
The Jets now hit the road for a quick trip to St. Louis, facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues on Thursday night. Then it’s back to Winnipeg for a six-game homestand.
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.
Updated on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 at 10:07 PM CST: Adds photos
11:47 PM: Final version