SAN JOSE — We're only two games into the young season, but the Winnipeg Jets are already facing a rather unexpected dose of adversity.
They can't kill a penalty when it counts or score a goal when they have the man advantage. They aren't getting enough saves from Connor Hellebuyck. And, not surprisingly, they've yet to register a win despite playing a pair of rebuilding teams not expected to make much noise in the NHL this year.
A 4-1 loss in Anaheim on Wednesday was followed up with a 4-3 setback on Saturday night in San Jose. This one will be especially tough to swallow because of how it happened. Winnipeg appeared to be in full control of this game early, enjoying a well-deserved two-goal lead that, frankly, could have been even bigger.
But then it all fell apart, thanks to some truly ugly special teams. A shorthanded goal and two power play goals against suddenly had them in a hole they could not dig out from.
"We gotta sharpen that up. Seems like we’re a bit disconnected," said Andrew Copp, one of the club’s key penalty killers.
Hellebuyck has now given up eight goals on just 53 shots, while opponents are 4-for-10 with the man advantage. And their own power play hasn't bailed them out, now 0-for-8 overall. Add it all up and that's a recipe for failure.
"Maybe our forwards and D are just a little too far apart, a little disconnected in the way we’re going," said Copp. "Other than that, we’ve had some really good spells, some spells that haven’t been so good that feels like they’ve taken advantage of when we have slipped. So it’s just trying to play a full 60 and getting on the right foot."
They certainly appeared to be headed in the right direction off the hop.
Pierre-Luc Dubois was a man possessed in the opening frame, with the puck seemingly on his stick every single shift. He looked fast, confident and powerful, which was on display when he opened the scoring just 4:20 into the game. Dubois used his big body to gain position in front of the San Jose net, knocking home a loose puck off a Brenden Dillon point shot to give the visitors their first lead of the young season. Neal Pionk had the other helper.
Dubois could have had another goal or two in the frame with a bit more luck. He looked skyward after missing what appeared to be an empty net following a great feed from linemate Nikolaj Ehlers. No question, this is the Dubois the Jets were trading for when they shipped Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic the other way. The key, of course, is to follow up one good shift, one good period, one good game with more of the same, night in and night out.
"For me, I hate talking about last year, but I’m feeling more and more comfortable. My confidence is building," said Dubois.
"It’s about moving my feet, making plays and being smart. My game isn’t just about goals and assists, it’s sticks on puck, it’s being good on the forecheck, keeping pucks in and getting pucks out. My game is a lot of things that don’t show up on the scoreboard, but at the end of the day it can help us win. It takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of concentration. It takes some time sometimes, but you build it one game at a time, one step at a time."
Winnipeg's penalty kill was the subject of much concern heading into this one, especially after surrendering a pair of goals in the opening-night loss to Anaheim. But the unit got a nice confidence boost just 69 seconds into the second frame when Adam Lowry fed Copp in the slot for the shorthanded tally.
Sharks goalie Adin Hill and defenceman Erik Karlsson had a bit of a malfunction at the junction behind the net, which led to a juicy turnover that Lowry pounced all over.
The Jets, it appeared, were well on their way to victory No. 1, especially when rookie William Eklund — one of three San Jose players making their NHL debut Saturday — was whistled for tripping a couple minutes later. The Jets power play was perhaps due to finally connect, right?
Andrew Cogliano and Logan Couture gained possession off a draw in their own end, caught the Jets flat-footed and scored on the ensuing two-on-one rush, with Cogliano's wrister beating Hellebuyck.
"We’ve got to be a hell of lot quicker," is how Jets coach Paul Maurice put it. "The foundation of what we do has to be fast on both sides of the puck, regardless of routes and schemes and things like that with the puck."
That seemed to inspire the Sharks, and their more than 16,000 fans, as they began to take over the middle frame. And it really seemed to slow down the Jets.
"I think it’s basically we’re just not skating with the puck. We don’t get the puck with our feet moving, we kind of get it stopped," said Copp. "And then you make a pass to a guy standing still. So it’s the more you’re moving without the puck, and then you get the puck with speed the more dangerous you are, and that’s what really backs teams off. Just got to find a way to do that more."
They may not have the most talented team in the league, especially with a major youth movement underway, but they definitely work hard. And it paid off later in the period as another rookie, Jasper Weatherby, fired a rocket off the crossbar to beat Hellebuyck for his first NHL goal in his first NHL game. Josh Morrissey was in the box for holding.
Hellebuyck is likely getting sick of seeing fresh-faced kids on this road trip. Anaheim's Mason McTavish scored the game-winner for the Ducks in his NHL debut on Wednesday, and now Weatherby — who spent the last three years playing in Grand Forks for the University of North Dakota — has a lifetime memory against Winnipeg's former Vezina Trophy winner.
Tomas Hertl made it 3-2 just 3:25 into the third, once again with his team on the power play, this time with Dubois serving an elbowing infraction. Weatherby and Eklund, with his first-ever NHL point, had the assists. Then came the dagger at five-on-five, just 97 seconds later, as Rudolf Balcers beat Hellebuyck for what would be the game-winner. The Jets were reeling, guilty of some terrible puck management in their own end that proved costly.
Jansen Harkins made things interesting when he scored his first of the year with just under seven minutes to play, but that's as close as Winnipeg would get.
"It was a good start, a good first period. The way we want to play and the way we talk about playing, is fast," said Dubois.
"There’s a grey area between playing too fast and not supporting and playing too slow and being easy to check. For us, in the second period, we got spread out, the forwards got spread out from the defencemen and that made it hard to make plays. So it was a combination of a lot of things. We kind of lost momentum from that first goal and it went from there."
There was plenty of physical play in this one. Logan Stanley and Jacob Middleton dropped the gloves for a second-period scrap that came as a result of an Lowry hit from behind on Balcers. Dillon, who spent six seasons with the Sharks, gave a rude welcome to former teammate Tomas Hertl with a thunderous check.
And Mark Scheifele, fresh off serving a four-game suspension that began last May in the playoffs against Montreal, was left with a bloodied nose after a brouhaha that came after Balcers' goal. Jets winger Kyle Connor had knocked Balcers into his goalie, and all heck broke out as a result. Scheifele, despite getting the worst of it physically, ended up with the extra penalty.
"It feels like with the crowds it’s like a playoff game every time," said Copp. "Which is obviously great after not having them for a full season. It’s obviously great to have them back and the intensity is definitely up these first two games."
Evgeny Svechnikov came out of the lineup for the Jets to make room for Scheifele, who was held without a point, went minus-two, won just 8 of 18 faceoffs and had two shots on goal. Hellebuyck finished with 27 saves on 31 shots, while Hill stopped 20 of the 23 Winnipeg shots he faced.
The Jets overnighted in the Bay Area and will fly to St. Paul on Sunday, then hit the practice ice on Monday to prepare for Tuesday's meeting with the Minnesota Wild. After that, it's back home for two quick games — Anaheim on Thursday, Nashville on Saturday — before it's right back on the charter to California for three more road games.
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.