The goalie showed up on time, that’s for sure. The rest of the team, not so much.
In the end, the Winnipeg Jets got exactly what they deserved Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place — a 3-2 loss to a Los Angeles Kings team that isn’t exactly an NHL powerhouse but left the home team in their dust on this night.
"It’s not the young players, it’s the veteran guys, too. I would include myself in that group. I don’t know. There’s certain times in this game where it feels real tough. We’re kind of all going through that right now. Just trying to figure out our identity and trying to make it work on the fly," said a downcast Blake Wheeler.
The veteran Jets captain had his latest in a string of miserable outings — including going offside in the dying seconds of the game to nullify one final rush — and was even demoted off the top line midway through the second period.
"We’re a little snakebit right now. Maybe because of that we’re feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves. We’ve got a young team. I think not just the young players but even the veteran guys, when it’s not bouncing our way and you’re in the fight, you’re in the fight and you just can’t seem to get it turned around. It’s certainly frustrating. That’s a pretty lame excuse but it’s the truth," said Wheeler.
Winnipeg falls to 5-6-0 on the season. Los Angeles improves to 4-5-0.
"I don’t have one for you. I really don’t," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice when asked for a theory on why his team looked so sluggish, especially after a solid overall effort two nights earlier led to a 1-0 shootout victory over Edmonton which snapped a three-game losing streak.
"We were absolutely not moving our feet at all. Pretty stubborn with the puck at the same time. And they were the opposite, real fast and put pucks deep, got on our back end. I don’t have an answer for you for why we skated the way we skated other than we felt we were just moving the puck around here today. We were not a skating hockey team," said Maurice.
Winnipeg’s woeful special teams have been a major story early in the season, and this game was no different. The Jets went 0-for-5 on the power play, then surrendered the game-winner while down a man. This time, it was Jets defenceman Carl Dahlstrom’s holding minor that quickly came back to bite them. Anze Kopitar scored on the ensuing power play with 14:08 left in the third period, blowing past a flat-footed Josh Morrissey and beating Connor Hellebuyck with a backhander to break the deadlock.
"I don’t understand how the third one goes in. I played that perfectly in my book so, you know, I guess it’s just an unlucky night," said Hellebuyck, who finished with 38 saves.
The Jets apparently missed the memo that this one started at 7 p.m, leaving Hellebuyck to essentially fend for himself. A pair of early penalties, to Ville Heinola and Kyle Connor, put the NHL’s worst penalty killing to the test, and they managed to survive unscathed.
Once back to five-on-five, the Kings continued to dominate play and finally got rewarded just past the midway mark. Austin Wagner buried a rebound after Hellebuyck was impeded in his crease by teammate Dmitry Kulikov, whose stick got under his mask.
At that point, the shots were 15-2 for the visitors.
"You go on the penalty kill right away, twice. All of a sudden you’re standing still. Their top guys are touching the puck and snapping it around. I think from there it makes it a little bit difficult to get the game going how you want it to go. It took us a long time to get moving after that," said Wheeler.
The early siege continued, with Hellebuyck robbing Jeff Carter on the doorstep as his teammates were asleep at the wheel. At one point, the shots had climbed to 20-3 with just under five minutes left in the opening frame.
It was so one-sided that fans at Bell MTS Place even gave a Bronx Cheer when Jets defenceman Neal Pionk threw a harmless wrister on net with just over three minutes to play.
Just a few seconds later, the Jets caught a break when the Kings coughed up the puck in their end and Connor snapped a shot past netminder Jonathan Quick. The goal, at 17:07 of the period, snapped a drought of 255 minutes and 20 seconds in which the Jets had failed to score a five-on-five goal.
You’d think surviving such an ugly start would have brought a renewed focus for the second period. But you’d be wrong, as the Jets continued to be half a step behind their opponent.
Case in point: a wild sequence in which Winnipeg surrendered a breakaway that Hellebuyck stopped, followed by what appeared to be a highlight-reel pad save. As play continued, the horn inside the arena sounded and brought play to a halt — a sure sign the NHL was on the line from Toronto with something to say.
Sure enough, replays showed the puck fired by Kurtis MacDermid had crossed the goal-line 51 seconds earlier, and the Kings were back out in front 4:16 into the period.
"I knew I was close. I knew I was on the line. I got a good kick out but the recoil on my foot had me guessing, so I had a thought that was the moment. I still don’t see how it went in because my foot was only about maybe an inch behind the line," said Hellebuyck.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures. And so, with his team under siege, Maurice did something rarely seen around these parts: he broke up Wheeler and Mark Scheifele.
Nikolaj Ehlers, elevated to the top line in Wheeler’s place, scored on a nifty deflection at 12:26 of the period to get the Jets back on even terms with a Kings squad that had badly outplayed them to that point. His fifth of the year came off a point shot from Pionk. Eighteen-year-old Heinola, playing in his eighth NHL game, had the other helper and is now up to five points.
"Even strength we haven’t been producing a whole lot, so you’ve got to try to shuffle things around and try to get some energy in your lineup. I thought it was a good time for it, a good move by Paul. Too bad we couldn’t get that next one," said Wheeler.
The only difference in a fairly even final period was Kopitar’s power-play goal, which proved to be the dagger. The Jets got one final chance with Carter in the box for tripping Patrik Laine with 57 seconds remaining, but once again the power play couldn’t produce.
"Connor was really good here and after that, nobody is bragging about their game," said Maurice. "Like I said, that’s my job to have the answers. I don’t have them for you. We did not skate well."
Winnipeg is 2-4-0 at Bell MTS Place this year, and 2-10-0 in the past dozen home games dating back to last season. Perhaps a change of scenery for a home game is needed: they’ll play host to the Calgary Flames on Saturday night at Mosaic Stadium in Regina as part of the Heritage Classic.
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, October 22, 2019 at 10:08 PM CDT: Adds photos
11:36 PM: Final version