DENVER — The captain fell on his sword for the rest of the troops Wednesday night, but truth be told the entire Winnipeg Jets corps was simply awful.
An embarrassed group slinked out of Pepsi Center battered, bruised and bleeding — only their egos, mind you — after an old-fashioned 7-1 whipping by the hungry Colorado Avalanche.
Soundly outplayed after 40 minutes but down just 2-0, the Jets tapped out in the final period, surrendering five goals to their amped-up Central Division brethren.
The Avs look more like a Stanley Cup contender than Blake Wheeler and the rest of the Jets do with just over six weeks left in the regular season.
And the veteran right-winger stood up and faced the cringe-worthy, off-key music after the final, merciful buzzer.
"It looked like we kind of gave up, so that’s disappointing," he said. "Throughout everything in the time here, even the years we didn’t make the playoffs, we had teams that competed, never gave up... even with nothing to play for. We had a group that played hard. We didn’t do that tonight. We left our goalie out to dry again. That’s a reflection of leadership, that starts at the top. So, it’s a good time for an awakening. Our team needs it.
"Clearly, that’s not what we’re looking for," Wheeler added. "There’s a lot we can learn from that and, like I said before, I’m going to be looking in the mirror, trying to figure out what I’ve been doing. I haven’t been doing enough, playing well enough, getting this group motivated enough to compete at this level. That’s a reflection of leadership right there."
Built for speed, the Jets couldn’t keep up with the Avs, led by the machine that is Nathan MacKinnon, whose 30th goal of the season just 59 seconds into the third period lifted the hosts to a 3-0 lead.
Seven different forwards scored for Colorado.
The Jets just had a couple of days off over the long weekend but appeared sapped of energy by the early going in the second period.
"We were f——- awful, we were terrible, it’s unacceptable. That’s all I got," said visibly perturbed centre Adam Lowry, who engaged in a third-period scrap with Avs forward Nikita Zadorov.
"I’m surprised. We knew they’d be hungry, they’re fighting for a playoff spot. I guess we’re fat and comfortable where we’re at because the effort wasn’t there, top to bottom."
Winnipeg (36-20-4) is now just 2-4-2 in its last eight games, and clings to a one-point lead on the Nashville Predators atop the Central Division, but still with two games in hand.
The Jets were guilty of horrible defensive coverage, penalty problems and an inabililty to generate any sustained pressure in the Colorado end. When they did, goalie Semyon Varlamov had a relatively easy night finding pucks. The Jets have preached simplicity during their recent slide, yet none of that back-to-basics approach was evident. Zone entries were a chore and pucks were rarely deep. They failed to created any havoc near the Colorado crease.
Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck held the Avalanche in check through the opening period, blocking 15 shots to keep the game scoreless.
But he was basically left to fend for himself in the final 40 minutes.
Colorado outshot the Jets 46-27. The shot count swelled on each of the Jets’ six minor penalties.
Head coach Paul Maurice offered nothing in the way of an answer in, perhaps, his shortest media briefing since taking over the Jets bench in 2014.
"It’s disappointing, for sure... expected better," he said. Then, when informed Wheeler suggested the team gave up in the latter stages, the coach replied, "Somebody used that word? We’ll sort that out tomorrow.
"You’re not getting much for me tonight, we weren’t very good. We weren’t very good. I’ll fix it tomorrow. You guys have a wonderful day."
Only hours before puck drop, Maurice hinted he was amenable to the idea of some shuffling up front in the event things went sour against the Avalanche.
Sour? More like rancid.
He cranked up the Jet-o-matic line mixer to high in the third period. No forward trio was safe from the blades.
He started the blending in the third period, however, that actually made matters worse as Colorado struck for five in the final frame.
The Jets’ No. 1 line of Mark Scheifele, Wheeler and Kyle Connor, once a cohesive unit, was in a confused state for two periods, until Maurice split them up and replaced the captain with Jack Roslovic.
Connor poked in his 23rd goal of the season to make it 4-1 in the third period — a tally with the man advantage that ended the Jets’ 0-for-22 power-play goalless skid — but the damage was long done.
And what of Patrik Laine? More of the same as the Jets’ discombobulated winger stretched his goal-scoring drought to 15 games. The Bryan Little line in its entirety was particularly anemic, and also got a major shakeup. Maurice inserted Andrew Copp between Laine and Brandon Tanev, while Little hooked up with Wheeler and Perreault.
Avs coach Jared Bednar broke up his top line of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog against Vegas on Monday and the moved produced a 3-0 win. Two nights later, the wealth was shared again as Carl Soderberg, Rantanen, Matt Calvert, Tyson Jost, Landeskog and A.J. Greer — with the first goal of his NHL career — lit the lamp for the hosts.
Winnipeg went with the same lineup used Saturday in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators, a bit of a mess that prompted Maurice to do the almost unthinkable and give the team two days off.
Defencemen Dustin Byfuglien (lower body) and Joe Morrow (lower body) did not join their teammates on this three-game road trip, while forward Nikolaj Ehlers (upper body) joined the group for the morning skate wearing a non-contact jersey.
The Jets face the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night and then wrap up the trip Sunday in Phoenix against the Arizona Coyotes. That night, former Jet and longtime Coyotes captain Shane Doan will watch as his No. 19 jersey gets raised to the rafters at Gila River Arena.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 at 10:40 PM CST: Edits photo captions
11:59 PM: Full write through, adds photos.
12:14 AM: Fixes photo captions.