Maybe, just maybe, the Winnipeg Jets are engaged in some kind of elaborate rope-a-dope scheme.
If so, fair warning to their likely first-round post-season opponents, the Edmonton Oilers.
Regrettably for their fans, the version of the Jets that fell 3-1 on Monday night to the star-crossed Vancouver Canucks closely resembled the team that’s been outclassed by nearly every opponent the last month.
Even Jets captain Blake Wheeler, the eternal glass-half-full guy, had trouble coming up with something particularly positive to say.
"Just kind of blah. I don’t think it was the best game we’ve played all year. I don’t think it was the worst game we’ve played all year. We were just kind of … we were out there," said Wheeler.
"Certainly, it’s not going our way, bounces aren’t going our way. We had a couple of opportunities to … whether it’s score early or tie the game, just nothing is coming easy for us. Then we just give up such big chances it’s tough to bounce back from."
"Just kind of blah. I don’t think it was the best game we’ve played all year. I don’t think it was the worst game we’ve played all year. We were just kind of … we were out there.' — Winnipeg Jets team captain Blake Wheeler
Winnipeg dropped its second consecutive decision to a non-playoff-bound division rival on home ice — the Ottawa Senators prevailed 4-2 Saturday night — and has posted only one victory in its last 10 contests.
During that time, the group once considered one of the NHL’s most lethal has mustered just 17 goals. They’re stuck in the corner of the ring, with no punching power to escape.
"I think when you go through a stretch like we’re going through right now, it’s very frustrating. Beyond that, I’m trying to be honest with you guys but I just don’t have a whole ton of great adjectives to use to describe our performance," said Wheeler. "I still think we have a good vibe in our room and a lot to look forward to going forward but we are certainly having a hard time here closing out the season."
The Jets’ collective confidence in the offensive zone didn’t get a boost against Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, who made at least a half-dozen sensational saves among the 39 he registered on the night.
Jets centre Mark Scheifele was hard-pressed to explain why the offence has dried up.
"I don’t have an answer for you," he said. "When we get our chances, obviously we’ve got to put them in. All of us want to score, so it’s not a matter of want but just a matter of doing. You want production; you need production to win in this league. We need to figure some things out as a team, offensively and defensively. We’ve got to figure them out soon because playoffs are coming soon."
Vancouver (21-26-3) seized a 2-0 edge on Winnipeg just over seven minutes into the game.
"I don’t have an answer for you... We need to figure some things out as a team, offensively and defensively. We’ve got to figure them out soon because playoffs are coming soon." — Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele
Jets blue-liner Ville Heinola tried a behind-the-back pass to Josh Morrissey at the Canucks blue line but Nils Hoglander intercepted it, raced in on a breakaway and flipped his 11th goal behind Jets starter Laurent Brossoit at 3:04. Bo Horvat, with his 17th, increased the lead about four minutes later after a great feed from Tanner Pearson.
Kyle Connor beat Demko at 10:44 on a play orchestrated by Mathieu Perreault.
After a scoreless middle frame, the Jets were well within striking distance in the third period and generated a number of high-quality chances.
But Demko denied them all, including the initial shot and rebound on a Connor breakaway.
"The offensive part of our game at least looked right — until the goalie stopped the puck. We’ve played some games where I didn’t think we generated nearly as much as I hoped to, but I thought tonight we seem to have gotten that part, with better traffic at the net," said head coach Paul Maurice. "And we had some pretty good looks, he made three or four really good saves on something through the seam. So, there’s a starting point there."
Already with a first-period goal, Hoglander inadvertently banked a pass off Josh Morrissey’s stick and in behind Brossoit midway through the final period to provide the visitors with a two-goal cushion.
The Jets are just 11-13-2 on home ice.
"The offensive part of our game at least looked right ‐ until the goalie stopped the puck." — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice
The local NHL squad is supposed to be girding for the weighty part of the season, however, it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg as a contender to push for the Stanley Cup.
Not with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and the rest of the Oilers on the upcoming fight card.
Indeed, readers 35 and older who spent their formative years in Manitoba and stopped by the old barn on Maroons Road a time or two back in the ‘80s should either bypass the next paragraph or brace themselves for some distressing flashbacks.
The Jets (28-23-2) are bound to meet Oilers in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Winnipeg needs just one point in its final two games or a Montreal Canadiens loss to Edmonton on Wednesday.
Vancouver and Winnipeg collide tonight at 7 p.m., and the Jets complete their 56-game, regular-season schedule Friday against the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs, who would host the Habs in the other all-Canadian series.
Winnipeg has manufactured just two triumphs in nine tries against the Oilers this season.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).