ST. PAUL -- From comfortable to a crisis, the Winnipeg Jets suddenly find themselves at a crossroads. Five straight losses, the latest coming in blowout fashion on Friday afternoon in St. Paul, have sent the fragile squad into a full-blown tailspin.
They can't buy a goal. They can't catch a break. And now they've seemingly forgotten the importance of a strong defensive structure, cheating for offence and becoming a tire fire in their own end. All of these issues were on display as the Minnesota Wild cruised to an easy 7-1 victory before more than 19,000 satisfied customers enjoying the holiday matinee at Xcel Energy Center.
"We have to get angry and we've got to get ourselves out of this," said Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who was given the hook less than three minutes into the second period after giving up his fourth goal of the day on just the 14th shot.
"We're playing a little bit fragile. And there's three zones and we have to care more about every single one of them, starting in our end. We can't be giving up seven. I mean it's one of those nights. You can throw something at that but it's just unacceptable if you want to win in this league."
Winnipeg, which sat on top of the Central Division less than two weeks ago, are now on the cusp of falling below the Western Conference playoff bubble entirely with a 9-7-4 record. First-place Minnesota improves to 13-6-1.
Forget about trying to find a silver lining here, such as the fact the Jets managed to kill off all four penalties they took, broke out of a 1-for-23 slump on the power play with a third period goal and managed to snap a scoring drought of more than 164 minutes when Pierre-Luc Dubois found the back of the net.
That's simply white noise and window dressing. This was easily the worst performance of the young season. And it doesn't get any easier. The club chartered to Calgary following the loss, where the red-hot and well-rested Flames are waiting to take them on Saturday night at the Saddledome.
"It's on. It's on. There's no more of this. We're going to give it to them," said Hellebuyck. "I think just a little urgency. And it can't be from one guy. It can't be solo efforts. It's the team. It's every single guy in that locker room, including myself. A little more urgency. And if it takes a 1-0 game, that's what we've got to do. We've got to give what the game is demanding of us right now."
It's not quite Babe Ruth pointing to the bleachers and calling his shot, but that sure sounds like a bold declaration from a club that isn't inspiring a whole lot of confidence these days, a sparkling 9-3-3 start to the season now a distant memory.
There were plenty of signs early that this was going to be a tough day at the office, starting with Alex Goligoski's point shot just 52 seconds into the game that deflected off Nikolaj Ehlers, hit the post and went in past a screened Hellebuyck. Mats Zuccarello doubled the lead at 7:47 of the opening frame, firing a shot from inside the blue-line that struck Jansen Harkins, Hellebuyck's elbow, the post, and then Hellebuyck's back before trickling across the goal line.
At the other end of the ice, the Jets had absolutely zero puck luck. Brenden Dillon hit the post, Dubois was sent in alone only to have the puck suddenly bounce over his stick before he could take a shot, and then Mark Scheifele was robbed by Cam Talbot from the slot off a perfect feed from linemate Blake Wheeler.
Despite a 14-9 advantage in shots, and arguably carrying the bulk of the play, they were down 2-0 through 20 minutes. It would seem that's around the point Winnipeg decided to push the panic button and completely abandon any semblance of structure, not unlike a similar flipping of the switch that happened in Wednesday's 3-0 loss in Columbus.
The Wild have a lot more offensive weapons than the Blue Jackets and made the Jets pay dearly. Zuccarello scored his second, Ryan Hartman notched his team-leading 11th, and Jon Merrill beat backup Eric Comrie from long-distance to turn the game into a laugher before it was barely at the midway point.
"I can count numerous times when we've given up two in the first period and then we've won those games. We've shut them down and then we win 3-2 or whatever," said Hellebuyck. "I guess it's one of those games but I know the character's in the room. We've just got to let it come out."
Jets coach Paul Maurice got out the line blender, moving players all over the place. Most notable was the demotion of Nikolaj Ehlers down to the third line, with Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry. The bench boss was also giving seventh defenceman Nathan Beaulieu a regular shift on the fourth-line as a right-winger, after opting to only dress 11 forwards and park Riley Nash and Kristian Vesalainen in the press box.
"We had a few guys up front have tough, tough nights and I was trying to keep them apart," Maurice said of the shuffling.
Matt Dumba made it 6-0 midway through the third off a pretty three-way passing play, before Dubois ensured the Jets wouldn't be blanked for a second straight game by beating Talbot on the power play with just under five minutes left. Kirill Kaprizov, who had three assists earlier in the game, converted the touchdown just 14 seconds later.
"They were just way better in front of their net then we were in front of ours to start," said Maurice. "I really don’t have a complaint about our offensive game. It was the defensive game. We were giving up more odd-man (Friday) than we’ve given up a long, long time. We’ve been a good five-on-five defensive team. I betcha we’ve given up 23 goals. Gave up six (Friday) even strength. That just hasn’t happened to us. We just weren’t sharp in front of the nets."
Winnipeg now just have five goals in the last five games, despite taking 184 shots in that span.
"Instead of being excited about an offensive chance, we’re defeated when it doesn’t go in," Maurice said of the current offensive mentality. "We need to be a hell of a lot better defensively. That’s the starting point. That’s how you get out of these things. If you’re not scoring goals, you can’t go out and sell it all out at all costs to score. We gave up so much off the rush, whether it was dangerous off the rush, it became dangerous after the rush."
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.