They turned back the clock on Tuesday at Bell MTS Place, with plenty of nostalgia in the air for the annual Alumni Night affair.
And the Winnipeg Jets followed suit by going back in time to a not-so-distant past when they struggled on home ice, couldn’t kill a penalty and had trouble defending and scoring. The end result was an ugly 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers that pours cold water all over the Jets’ recent hot streak.
Winnipeg falls to 29-24-5 and are once again outside the Western Conference playoff picture, one point behind the Arizona Coyotes and Calgary Flames for the two wild-card spots up for grabs. New York improves to 28-23-4.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler bristled at a post-game question about what went wrong.
"The last eight to 10 games, our team’s competed our asses off. Tonight was an off night," he said, beginning a theme that was repeated by other players and head coach Paul Maurice. In essence, the message was they’d pretty much drained the tank over the last couple weeks and were perhaps due for a bit of a stinker.
Indeed, the Jets came into the night riding a three-game winning streak and were 4-0-1 in their past five games. But they couldn’t keep the good times rolling against a Rangers club that’s already in "next year" territory, expected to be sellers and are undergoing a bit of a youth movement, including a rookie goalie at the helm.
Unfortunately for Winnipeg, that first-year netminder looks to be a star in the making, and he shone brightly in this one. Igor Shesterkin, who was making just his seventh NHL start and first on the road, stopped 42 shots for the victory. The 24-year-old Russian briefly left the game in the first period after a collision with Jets forward Andrew Copp but was able to return, improving his record to 6-1-0. Henrik Lundqvist came on for six minutes of relief, stopping the only shot he faced.
Shesterkin, selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL draft, had been lighting up the American Hockey League this season after coming over from the KHL last fall. He’s a keeper, literally and figuratively.
"Their guy was pretty good. Yeah, there were some that we missed on, broke some sticks, didn’t get a tip on. There’s some of that stuff. But their guy made some pretty good saves in tight. He was positionally, really, really square to pucks," said Maurice.
Also unfortunate for the Jets is that the Rangers have yet to unload centre Chris Kreider, who is expected to be the prize addition for some lucky club by the Feb. 24 trade deadline. The pending unrestricted free agent was flying all game, scoring the first two goals for the visitors.
Kreider’s first came with just 35 seconds left in the first period. Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov had stepped up to throw a hit, and his partner, Sami Niku, was caught out of place and unable to stop Kreider from streaking in and scoring off the rush. Maurice suggested Niku has to be better in that situation.
"I don’t mind our first (period) because we’re playing well and they’re playing well. The one at the end of the first is a clean route and a clean read, we should be able to handle that one," he said.
Kreider’s second came at 7:30 of the middle frame, with Jets forward Gabriel Bourque in the penalty box for hooking. Kreider batted home a rebound just 16 seconds into his team’s only power play of the game.
"We’re off. You don’t see a guy usually sitting that low. We were off in a couple of spots," Maurice said of giving the Rangers too much room on a penalty kill that had been trending in the right direction lately.
Winnipeg, which spotted Chicago a 2-0 first-period lead on Sunday before rallying for a 5-2 victory, had none of the same jump they showed in the final 40 minutes against the Blackhawks.
In fact, it only got worse as the game progressed.
"We didn’t have the energy that we had in the first period, in the second and third. Just wasn’t there," said Wheeler.
Ryan Strome beat Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck through the five-hole just 53 seconds into the third period, and then Mika Zibanejad made it a laugher just 35 seconds later, burying a pass from Pavel Buchnevich after a Hellebuyck puck-handling miscue behind the net.
"It sucks. But that stuff happens. We had a plan before coming out for the third and we weren’t able to do that," said Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Jets got one back at 4:35, as Ehlers’ shot bounced off New York defenceman Ryan Lindgren and past Shesterkin for his 20th of the season. Sami Niku and Josh Morrissey drew the assists.
But that’s as close as they’d get, despite peppering New York with 44 shots. Hellebuyck finished with 28 saves.
"Our shots were in areas that we have guys that can put it in, but there weren’t a whole lot of second-chance opportunities, there weren’t ones where we’re banging in rebounds. They had a couple rebounders off the top of my head, this time of year that’s how you score," said Wheeler.
Forward Jack Roslovic said his team must find a way to get back to the previous high level of play, now with just 24 games left in the regular season.
"You can do that (play hard) every night. Obviously you get tired, but we get paid to do a job out there. We played eight really good games against really good opponents, really tough opponents. And we played them well. (Tuesday), it’s chalked up to a lot of missed opportunities from us," said Roslovic.
The Jets return to action on Friday when they play the fourth game of a six-game homestand against the San Jose Sharks. Visits by Chicago and the Los Angeles Kings will follow before they hit the road for four straight.
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 11, 2020 at 10:25 PM CST: Adds photos
11:32 PM: Full write through.
11:39 PM: Updates photos