April 8, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Jets flying into headwinds

Injuries, goaltending stumbles, lousy luck and recent losses could knock Central's surprise off playoff-bound perch

Opinion

The Winnipeg Jets had us fooled for a bit there, didn't they? A red-hot November followed by a strong start to December. Piling up the wins, including several of the convincing variety. Racking up the points, and climbing the NHL standings.

Forget just battling for a wildcard playoff spot, which many pundits figured was going to be their best-case scenario this season. Visions of a Stanley Cup were starting to dance in the heads of many fans.

Yes, everything was going so smoothly — until it wasn't. And now, mired in a stretch of just one win in the last four games with a daunting part of the schedule looming, it's safe to say cracks are starting to show.

All the good fortune that seemed to be shining on Winnipeg has suddenly taken a turn in the wrong direction. How else to explain all those deflected goals into their own net against Detroit last week? Or the non-call on a blatant trip of Adam Lowry that set up a turning-point goal for Carolina last Tuesday? Or a too-many-men penalty against Chicago Thursday that ended with a momentum-killing goal after defencemen Anthony Bitetto had the stick knocked out of his hands?

You have to be good to be lucky, and the Jets had been plenty of both but all those who had been predicting an inevitable regression, based on some underlying numbers that suggested the Jets were one of the NHL's biggest over-achievers so far and likely couldn't sustain it, are serving up plenty of "I told you so's," these days.

The Jets had a tough time getting anything past Chicago goalie Robin Lehner on Thursday. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)</p>

The Jets had a tough time getting anything past Chicago goalie Robin Lehner on Thursday. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

In a sense, you could argue the Blackhawks did exactly to the Jets what Winnipeg has done to a fair number of opponents already this season: namely, get outshot and outplayed for large stretches, yet find a way to win, mainly due to an incredible goaltending performance.

Turnabout is, indeed, fair play.

Speaking of which, Connor Hellebuyck suddenly looks human, giving up 16 goals on 120 shots over his last four starts, including one where he got yanked after two periods. That's a 4.36 goals-against average and an .867 save percentage in that span. Internally, the hope is this just a minor bump in the road over a small sample size, one he will quickly work his way out of.

The injuries are starting to pile up, with Mathieu Perreault and then Andrew Copp going down in quick succession this week, decimating what had been one of the strongest third lines in the NHL and severely testing the depth of the organization while placing even greater weight on the top six forwards, especially with Bryan Little also still out long term.

Woeful special teams are proving costly, with a penalty kill that is dead-last and a power play that is just 19th.

And don't look now, folks, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Jets are actually on the wrong side of the playoff line by Christmas Eve. Talk about a lump of coal in your stocking.

Connor Hellebuyck has given up 16 goals on 120 shots over his last four starts for a 4.36 goals-against average and an .867 save percentage in that span. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Connor Hellebuyck has given up 16 goals on 120 shots over his last four starts for a 4.36 goals-against average and an .867 save percentage in that span. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The streaking Minnesota Wild, currently sitting in ninth place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, are only three points back of the slumping Jets. That makes Saturday afternoon's soiree in St. Paul about as important a late-December game as you'll see.

Then it's back to Winnipeg for a Monday-night meeting with Montreal, while the Wild host the Calgary Flames that same night.

Things really get tough for the Jets following the three-day Christmas break, as they play a home-and-home with the St. Louis Blues, who appear poised to take a run at back-to-back championships, followed by a New Year's Eve date in Denver with the Colorado Avalanche.

The Jets will play seven of their next 10 in enemy territory — where they've gone winless in their last three games — meaning things could look a whole lot different a couple weeks from now if they can't find a way to weather the approaching storm.

One thing the Jets have done well this season, and over the last two years as well, is not allowing a tough stretch to snowball out of control. They've had only one three-game losing streak, indicating an ability to battle through adversity.

Well, they're facing a healthy dose of it right now. And with no outside help on the way, it's up to the coaches and players in the room to find a way to get back on track.

The team needs to get into playoff mentality early, says Nikolaj Ehlers. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)</p>

The team needs to get into playoff mentality early, says Nikolaj Ehlers. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

"That’s the great challenge, right. I think simplicity is always the answer to your problems," coach Paul Maurice said of how his group has been able to do that in the past. "So you’re watching for two things: trying to find a different way to do it, which usually means overpassing pucks, trying to break a game open early, so you’re worried about that. And then almost all your problems can be fixed by playing a real simple, direct, hard game. That should get you back to fast."

Easier said than done, of course, but forward Nikolaj Ehlers suggested this is where playoff runs over the last two springs — three rounds in 2018, and one round in 2019 — provide valuable experience for a group that is still, overall, rather young and learning how to navigate the ups-and-downs of a typical season.

"After two losses, you want to bounce back. You want to get into that playoff mentality pretty early. When you lose two in the playoffs, you’ve got to bounce back. So, we all know what needs to be done," Ehlers said.

At 20-13-2, there's no reason to push the panic button. The Jets are still in relatively good shape and have plenty of skill and firepower, which gives them a fighting chance regardless of who, or where, they're playing, but it would be naive to suggest there aren't some credible causes for concern these days.

A win or two over these next three days would go a long way to adding a little more happy to the holidays for the Jets and their fans, otherwise, you can expect plenty of bah, humbug on the horizon.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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