For the Winnipeg Jets, it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back. And another two points lost.
All the positives of a three-game winning streak and a 4-2 start to the season have vanished about as quickly as last weekend’s big snow dump. The Jets dropped a 3-1 decision to the New York Islanders Thursday night, their third defeat in five days at Bell MTS Place.
So much for home, sweet home.
Mathew Barzal scored twice in the second period to erase an early deficit and carry the visitors to victory. Winnipeg falls to 4-5-0 on the season, while New York improves to 4-3-0.
"It’s not going for us right now. Obviously scoring one goal, you’re not going to win many games that way. I thought we did enough offensively to win the game. I thought ninth game in 15 days, I still thought we carried most of the play and were the better team. It just wasn’t meant to be," said captain Blake Wheeler.
A crowd of 15,063 took in the game, which is 262 short of capacity. The Jets had officially sold out every regular-season and playoff game since relocating from Atlanta in 2011 until the streak was snapped in Tuesday night’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, which was witnessed by 14,764.
Of all the losses so far in this young season, this one might be the toughest to swallow for the Jets. They played as dominant a first period as they have all season and came out with a 1-0 lead, courtesy of a Nikolaj Ehlers power-play goal. Shots were 16-5 and the Jets looked like the better, faster, stronger and more determined team.
"You’re smart enough to now the shots aren’t going to end up 45-15. They had a tough start, we had a good start. But there’s two teams on the ice. And then it flattened out to even for the most part after that," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
As the clock neared the midway mark of the second period, Winnipeg continued to carry the play along with the one-goal cushion, although it could have been more if Jets winger Jack Roslovic didn’t fire wide of what was an otherwise wide-open net.
Still, things were looking pretty good, and then defenceman Dmitry Kulikov’s tripping penalty changed everything. Barzal needed 16 seconds to convert, beating Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck with a one-timer. It was the first shot of the frame for the Islanders, who were suddenly deadlocked in a game they probably had no business still being in.
Winnipeg’s penalty killing is eating them alive right now. Despite being on their best behaviour and taking just 16 minor penalties through nine games, the Jets have surrendered seven goals against. That puts them last in the NHL in penalty killing efficiency.
"There’s capable bodies there, guys that can do the job. It just seems like when it rains, it pours," said Wheeler. "Sometimes you try a little bit too hard and that’s almost worse. The confidence certainly is a little bit low on that right now. We gotta just start from the bottom and rebuild ourselves on the penalty kill and be committed to eating some pucks and do whatever it takes to keep it out of our net."
The goal seemed to transfer all momentum to the Islanders, who began coming in waves.
Hellebuyck made a couple of huge gloves saves off Anders Lee and Oliver Wahlstrom, but had no answer for Barzal during a two-on-one rush with just 17 seconds left in the middle frame.
Josh Morrissey had tried to dump a puck into the Islanders’ zone, which Johnny Boychuk quickly knocked down and turned the other way.
"We score a power-play goal, they score a power-play goal. The goal at the end of the second clearly hurts because it’s a controllable situation, we’ve got possession of the puck. That’s a tough one. But there’s still lots of time on the clock and there’s still lots of opportunity to tie that game," said Maurice.
That’s the kind of goal that can deflate a fragile squad, which the Jets clearly are right now. The Islanders, led by reigning coach of the year Barry Trotz, know how to play an efficient, lockdown game to perfection and did that in the third period, limiting the Jets to just a handful of chances.
Josh Bailey sealed it with an empty-net goal with 27 seconds left.
"They got a power play. Scored. Outside of that, that was it. They got a two-on-one, they buried it. I don’t remember much extended time in the D-zone. Certainly there was some moments, but not a whole lot to cause too much concern," Wheeler said of the chances his squad gave up.
"I think we’re going to look at the areas that we had some opportunities to really take control of the game and we didn’t. Maybe there was times in the second period where we had control of the puck but were too complacent on the outside, where as in the first and probably most of the third period we were getting pucks to the net and getting some rebounds, some traffic that way."
Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov stood tall, finishing with 32 saves. Hellebuyck made 23 stops.
"I don’t feel like they took over that much. They got that goal before the end of the second and we came out ready to play again in the third," said Ehlers. "I think we played a really good game and it’s something we can build off."
Rookie defenceman Ville Heinola returned to the lineup Thursday after being a healthy scratch for three straight games, and quickly made an impact by recording an assist.
"Good enough to play him 20 minutes," Maurice said when asked to assess what he saw from the 18-year-old.
"The things that you might point at in his game, he’s going to grow out of. The things that he does so very well, surprisingly as an 18-year-old, is a gift. This guy is going to be a really interesting player to watch develop over time. He moves so efficiently around the ice, with such poise. There’s nothing in his game that you’d say wasn’t in any other of the defencemen’s games. Just young. He was just as good or better on most of them. He was good."
Maurice was denied his 700th career victory for a third straight game. He’ll get his next chance on Sunday against NHL leading scorer Connor McDavid and the red-hot Edmonton Oilers.
No, it’s not going to get any easier.
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 Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 9:57 PM CDT: Adds photos
11:38 PM: Full write through adds quotes.