The Winnipeg Jets are stumbling into the playoffs, looking like a team that's going to be easy prey. The Ottawa Senators are surging into their off-season, looking like a team nobody would want to play high-stakes hockey against right now.
No, it wasn't hard to figure out which club is hot, and which is not, based on Saturday's meeting at Bell MTS Place. Rookie forward Tim Stützle notched his first-career hat trick and first-year NHL goaltender Filip Gustavsson turned aside 27 shots as the Senators downed the Jets 4-2.
Winnipeg has now dropped eight of its last nine games in regulation, falling to 28-22-3 overall with three regular-season games left. They remain in third place, two points ahead of Montreal. Ottawa is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games and out of the North Division basement for the first time all year.
"Good enough? No. We’re in the business of results, so it’s not good enough. We sure are trying to get the job done, but right now it isn’t quite going our way," said a visibly frustrated Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
His team finally took a step forward on Wednesday, snapping a seven-game losing streak with an impressive 4-0 victory in Calgary to clinch a post-season berth. But as they kicked off their final homestand of the season with not a whole lot on the line, they reverted back to their recent sluggish, sloppy ways.
"We had just come off a really emotional game, an emotional stretch. They had worked hard in practice (Friday), but it was quiet. They came out and they worked hard but there wasn’t a whole lot," said coach Paul Maurice.
"I thought we looked like a team that just broke a seven-game streak and qualified for the playoffs and beat the team that knocked us out of the playoffs last year and we spent a lot in that game. There wasn’t a whole lot of emotion. The hard work was there. The effort was there, but the emotion was hard to find."
An Ottawa team filled with exciting young prospects such as Stützle and Gustavsson took full advantage, showing they are doing anything but playing out the string right now despite long-ago being eliminated from playoff contention. The Jets would be wise to take some notes about how the buzzsaw Senators never seem to take a shift off, playing an up-tempo aggressive style that makes them a handful to deal with these days.
"We're in a playoff spot. We don't love our game right now. We loved how we played in Calgary. Obviously we didn't give them anything and we scored goals, and then you come back and you play an Ottawa team that's out of the playoffs and they have nothing to lose and they played a good game, so hats off to them," said Jets forward Mason Appleton.
"I would say we're in a fine spot, obviously, but there's better hockey to be played in front of us."
The Jets started off strong enough, outshooting the Senators 8-1 early in the first period and generating plenty of good looks. Mark Scheifele was robbed by Gustavsson from in tight, and Pierre-Luc Dubois just shot wide of what appeared to be an empty net.
The good work was erased, however, when Connor Brown tipped a Victor Mete point shot past Connor Hellebuyck at 10:13 of the opening period for his team-leading 20th of the year. Just 76 seconds later, another shot from the blue line, this time off the stick of Artem Zub, was deflected by Stützle. That play began with a failed clearing attempt by Hellebuyck that quickly ended in the back of his net.
Appleton cut the deficit in half 55 seconds into the second period, taking a pass from Scheifele and ripping a shot past Gustavsson for his first goal in 18 games. He's now up to 10 on the year, the eighth member of the team to hit double-digits.
Stützle, the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft, struck again at 5:11 of the third, finishing off a nifty three-way passing play with linemates Brown and Shane Pinto to restore the two-goal lead. It came after the Jets got hemmed in their own zone, unable to clear the puck. Scheifele made it interesting by scoring his 20th of the year with 53 seconds left to play, but Stützle iced it with an empty-netter at 19:54 to finish off his best offensive night of the 19-year-old's promising young career.
"I think those two guys are great players and I really enjoy playing with them. We try to make plays all over the ice all the time. I really enjoy playing with those two guys and it’s a lot of fun. We talk after every shift. That’s why we’re able to get better. Especially [Brown], he’s great and helps me out a lot," said Stützle.
The Jets were without two key players for this one. Nikolaj Ehlers missed a sixth straight game with a shoulder injury — although he did hit the ice during the morning skate Saturday as he works toward a probable return for the start of the playoffs — and top-scoring defenceman Neal Pionk was held out with a minor ailment. Those are notable absences for a team that is offensively challenged of late, with just 16 goals over the last nine games.
"At the end of the day, we still had some odd-man rushes, had some chances. It’s just a matter of sharpening up, making the passes, taking the right shot and making the right reads from there," said Scheifele of the scoring woes.
"It was just guys going to the right spots, guys making the right play and being sharp with that and putting that pass on the tape. It’s not rocket science. It’s about doing the same things over and over and being there every single time, being consistent for each other and I think that’s the biggest thing."
Winnipeg also had a bit of a scare late in the third when Hellebuyck appeared to hurt his hand. He spent a few minutes with the trainer but remained in the game, finishing with 19 saves.
The Jets return to action on Monday as they host the Vancouver Canucks for the first of back-to-back games, then finish off the 56-game season on Friday against Toronto. The playoffs are expected to start a few days later.
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.