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CHICAGO — It’s never a good sign when the majority of fans have filed out of the building and the dressing room door remains shut.
But that was the case Sunday night, as the reeling Winnipeg Jets held a players-only meeting following a 5-2 loss to Chicago.
It appears the situation has hit a crossroads for a club with just five wins in their last 16 games. And how could it not, after the well-rested Jets inexplicably came out flat against a division rival that had played the night before, quickly falling behind and never recovering.
"I think it’s just generally talking about not being frustrated with our game here. We believe we’re a good hockey team. We’re in a fight to make the playoffs for a reason. Every team that goes on to make the playoffs or have successful runs in the playoffs goes through periods of adversity. I think for us it’s about trying to get out of that little mini-slump as fast as possible, being confident and believing that we’re a good hockey team and we can play with anyone," said alternate captain Josh Morrissey.
They may believe they’re a good team, but they certainly don’t look like it lately. And not only did the Jets drop a pivotal game to kick off a three-game road trip heading into the All-Star break, they were also on the wrong side of history.
Alex Nylander and Eric Gustafsson’s first-period goals gave the Blackhawks the fast start they needed. And Patrick Kane’s 1,000th career point gave them the marquee moment they hoped for.
It’s the fifth straight win for Chicago, who improve to 24-20-6 and pull into a tie with the Jets for ninth place in the Western Conference. It’s also the second triumph in as many nights for the Blackhawks, who trounced Toronto 6-2 on Saturday.
Winnipeg falls to 25-20-4, including 5-9-2 over the past month.
"I do like to see that. I think it’s always more important, when you’re struggling, that the players are coming together and not going separate ways, so it’s good that they got together," coach Paul Maurice said of the impromptu gathering, which left the media and several team executives including chairman Mark Chipman and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff waiting in the hallway outside
Winnipeg’s power play was a big story, going 0-for-5 on a night they sure could have used a goal or two. They generated plenty of good looks and 13 shots with the man advantage, but weren’t rewarded. Much of that was thanks to the superb goaltending of Robin Lehner, who made 36 saves. It was an eerily similar performance for Lehner to a Dec. 19 game in Winnipeg in which he made 36 saves in Chicago’s 4-1 victory.
"The power play’s not the problem. Obviously we didn’t score and we would have liked to get one but I think there’s more to the game than the power play. (If) we get our 5-on-5 game right, all three zones — you know, since this unit’s been back together I think we’re right near the top of the league. The power play’s fine," said captain Blake Wheeler, who believes a sluggish start was what did his team in.
"Not a good first. They jumped on us and I think, as that period went on, we got stronger. Played pretty well the latter half, the latter 40 minutes of the game. Their goalie made some big saves. We couldn’t get that next one to go. I think from there, they jumped on their opportunities, jumped on a couple of loose pucks, and that was the difference," he said.
Down 2-0 late in the second, the Jets finally broke through when Mark Scheifele scored his 23rd of the season But David Kampf added a valuable insurance marker that proved to be the game-winner at 9:29 of the third after Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck botched a routine play, failing to cover the puck in his crease and allowing Kampf to get a stick on it and poke it in.
It was the dagger for a Jets team that had been coming on strong in an attempt to find the equalizer, including a second period where they had fired 20 shots.
"I think you can’t let that creep in, but the same old story, goalie’s making some big saves at the other end, it seems like you’re hitting posts or the puck’s a couple inches away from your blade when you have a wide open net, things like that. Obviously it’s frustrating," said Morrissey.
With a two-goal lead and under six minutes to play, the moment that fans wanted to see finally happened as Kane set up Brandon Saad become just the fourth Blackhawks player in history to reach the 1,000 point milestone, joining Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Denis Savard in that illustrious club. The entire Chicago team poured off the bench to celebrate, and the sold-out crowd of more than 21,000 gave Kane a prolonged standing ovation.
Patrik Laine scored his 16th with just over two minutes left and Hellebuyck pulled for an extra attacker. But Dominik Kubalik added an empty-netter to seal the deal. Winnipegger Jonathan Toews got an assist on the goal, his 799th career point.
Hellebuyck finished with 28 saves.
Despite the final score, the Jets had a much-improved effort following Friday’s terrible 7-1 loss to Tampa at Bell MTS Place. But that was of little solace considering the final result.
"First of all, that’s not saying a whole lot (comparing to the Tampa game)," said Wheeler.
"But there are instances where maybe you play a little bit better than... When it’s going tough, sometimes you’re playing well and losing. Sometimes when you’re winning you’re not playing so well but you’re still finding ways to win. It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. You know, I think there’s some good in our game. There’s some areas we can improve. Young hockey team. We’ve just got to keep working every day and sticking together to get it right. There’s still a lot of hockey to play. There’s still time to get it right and I believe in this group."
Winnipeg will try to get back in the win column Tuesday night in Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes, then finish up the journey the following night in Columbus against the Blue Jackets. Maurice said the key is trying to stay positive right now.
"You have to. You can leave road trip 2-1 and you’ve got to leave that door open for yourself. It’s a challenge for us right now and you don’t want to that to build and become a bigger animal than it is," said Maurice.
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 Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 10:08 PM CST: Writethru
12:48 AM: Edited