Record: 52 – 20 – 10
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Battered, bruised and likely keeping the ice pack industry booming, the Winnipeg Jets are limping back to town after their longest road trip of the season ended with a disappointing but gutsy defeat Tuesday night in Nashville.
Already missing seven regulars due to injury as they faced a division rival in a back-to-back situation, the list quickly grew by two more before they got out of a nightmarish first period.
Centre Paul Stastny suffered a lower-body ailment in the pre-game warm-up and was a late scratch. And goalie Michael Hutchinson was pulled with an upper-body injury just 8:49 into the opening frame — after giving up three goals on 15 shots.
It looked like the rout would be on. But Winnipeg showed plenty of fight to make a contest of it, ultimately falling 3-1.
"You know what, I remember the last half of that game, in a tough situation I really liked the way we stayed with it. There wasn't anything easy for us there," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "You never like to lose, I don't care what your lineup looks like. But you want to walk away feeling that even if you weren't good, you were hard. They gave it what they had."
Winnipeg finishes 3-2-1 on this trip that began with wins against the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, followed by a regulation loss against the Philadelphia Flyers, and an overtime defeat against the Washington Capitals.
Nashville's victory puts them eight points ahead of Winnipeg for first place in the Central Division. Winnipeg remains in second place, seven points ahead of the Minnesota Wild. But of greater concern to the Jets is the health of their lineup with just more than three weeks left in the regular season.
Stastny, along with Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry and Matt Hendricks, makes four centres now out of the lineup. Throw in defencemen Jacob Trouba, Toby Enstrom and Dmitry Kulikov, plus Hutchinson now joining the other backup goalie Steve Mason, and you have an alarmingly long list of injured players.
Stastny's injury also threw a last-second wrench in all the lines. Shawn Matthias, activated off injured reserve earlier in the day after missing 24 games, was forced to dress despite not taking the pre-game skate. Winnipeg had no extra players at their disposal. He centred the fourth line with Brandon Tanev and Marko Dano, who came in after Hendricks was hurt the night before in Washington.
"Stastny went into the warm-up, stiffened up and couldn't go," said Maurice, who had no further post-game update.
Blake Wheeler moved back to centre and took Stastny's place on a line with Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. Bryan Little was between Kyle Connor and Joel Armia, while Andrew Copp skated with Mathieu Perreault and Jack Roslovic.
Playing for the second time in as many days against a rested opponent, Nashville was all over Winnipeg out of the gate. They recorded the first 13 shots of the game, in just more than five minutes of play.
"I saw a team that was down about half their players and playing the back end of a back-to-back, coming off a tough overtime (Monday) night. We knew the first was going to be tough for us, and they came out hot," said Wheeler. "You gotta give them a lot of credit for jumping on us. We didn't quite have our legs under us yet."
Kevin Fiala opened the scoring less than three minutes in, and then Austin Watson and Viktor Arvidsson scored short-handed goals 34 seconds apart to seemingly put this one to bed early.
"Power play's running No. 2 in the National Hockey League. Going to have an off night once in a while," is how Maurice explained it following the game.
Maurice called a timeout after the third goal, and there appeared to be an animated discussion with Hutchinson, which ended with him being pulled from the game. His mask was knocked off during play a few minutes earlier, and he is coming off a recent concussion that sidelined him for six games.
"Michael did not receive a concussion diagnosis after the game. He'll go back and get it evaluated (Wednesday)," said Maurice, adding Hutchinson told the training staff he "wasn't right.
"He was pretty sure he wasn't going to be able to continue," he said.
That put Connor Hellebuyck in the line of fire, one night after he made 40 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Capitals. Winnipeg was hoping to give their No. 1 goalie a rest, but those plans quickly changed. Hellebuyck stopped all 30 shots he faced in relief.
Nashville outshot Winnipeg 24-6 in the opening period. But the Jets, showing plenty of fight, stopped the bleeding and outshot Nashville 27-21 the rest of the game.
"A terrible start, really. But it's nice to see we didn't quit, we had some fight back in us and actually gave ourselves a chance," said Perreault.
Connor made things interesting when he scored on the power play 68 seconds into the final frame, converting a feed from Wheeler. It was his first goal in nine games and 23rd of the season. Laine drew the other assist, extending his career-best point streak to 13 games (16 goals, seven assists in that span). However, Laine's six-game goal-scoring streak came to an end.
"So proud of our guys. Name a team in the league that's down half their D-core and three of their four centre-ice men and two goaltenders. So it's tough. There's nights you make excuses to make yourself feel better, and there's nights where the reality of the situation is you're playing against a loaded deck. Our guys fought, man," said Wheeler.
Winnipeg was scheduled to fly home in the early morning hours and have a full day off Wednesday. They kick off a six-game homestand Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. Eight of their final 12 games will be at Bell MTS Place.
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, March 13, 2018 at 10:14 PM CDT: Adds photos
11:16 PM: Full write through
March 15, 2018 at 6:55 AM: Adds photos