MINNEAPOLIS — Blake Wheeler suggested they just "shower this one off and move on."

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Opinion

MINNEAPOLIS — Blake Wheeler suggested they just "shower this one off and move on."

Sound advice from the captain, really. The Winnipeg Jets wouldn't want the stench of Wednesday's first-period cow patty in Calgary to linger too long. And scrubbing it from the memory banks is likely the best way to move forward, even if some valuable lessons might have been contained in the mess that was giving up five goals en route to a 6-3 loss.

"I think it was just embarrassing. That’s not the Winnipeg Jets. That’s not the way we want to play this game. It was bad. It was real bad. We can’t let that happen again," said forward Patrik Laine, never one to apply a filter when it comes to speaking what's on his mind.

(As a quick aside, thank goodness for that. Far too many athletes are content to just spit out the same tired clichés, which is all the more reason to appreciate Laine's candour.)

With the Jets having now hit the quarter mark of their season, it's important to maintain some perspective with an eye on the bigger picture. Prior to that forgettable 20 minutes against the Flames (which was followed by 40 pretty dominant minutes by the Jets), Winnipeg had been playing some of its best hockey of the season and was on a 4-0-1 run heading into the game.

Reason for some concern? Sure, I'll give you that on at least a few fronts. Reason to panic? Absolutely not. This team is 12-6-2 and own the NHL's fifth-best winning percentage while sitting in a playoff spot on U.S. Thanksgiving, which has historically been a fairly telling barometer as to how things will play out. According to the NHL, 62 of 80 teams in playoff spots by Turkey Day over the past five seasons ended up making the playoffs.

Winnipeg's 26 points are just one short of what they had after 20 games last season — a campaign in which they ended up finishing No. 2 overall in the league while setting all kinds of franchise records and advancing to the third round of the playoffs for the first time.

"Just really important that the hockey team doesn’t think it can just throw its sticks out there and be good. We know we gotta work" — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice

Bottom line: there's no point in raising a big stink.

Maybe the most promising sign is that players and coaches know expectations are higher than ever and aren't just content to be a good team. Nobody around the organization is celebrating this start or planning a parade.

"I think that the hockey team is very interested and aware that we need to get better. And that’s not a statement of we’re not playing well. We’ve had a decent, solid start to the start of the year. We have areas to improve. We certainly don’t feel we’ve arrived," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said in the aftermath of Wednesday's loss.

"Just really important that the hockey team doesn’t think it can just throw its sticks out there and be good. We know we gotta work."

They'll get a chance to do just that when they take on the Minnesota Wild Friday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center. It's a big game, for a few reasons. The Wild are currently two points up on the Jets for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division. But more than that, Minnesota is the type of team Winnipeg has struggled with so far this season. The Jets have played only six games against teams currently in the top 10 of NHL win percentage. And their record is just 1-4-1 in those contests.

The old saying "to be the best you've got to beat the best" comes to mind. And the Jets have done very little of that so far, racking up the majority of their points against some of the league's lesser-lights. That might be the biggest area of worry, especially with their schedule set to start getting tougher.

"I say our game is not there yet where it needs to be. I think we’re getting there. Baby steps. But I think overall we’ve played some good hockey. After (Wednesday) we have to play some good hockey in Minnesota and be able to bounce back after this loss," Laine said.

The recent play of the third-year Finnish sniper is another reason for optimism. Laine has five goals in his past two games, including three during five-on-five action, which was an area he'd been struggling in. He is up to 13 goals on the season, putting him on pace for 53.

The Minnesota Wild will prove to be a good test for the Winnipeg Jets when they visit Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis, Friday.

(AP PHOTO/ANDY CLAYTON-KING)

The Minnesota Wild will prove to be a good test for the Winnipeg Jets when they visit Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis, Friday.

Winnipeg's power play is the second-best in the NHL right now, and the penalty kill has been reliable on most nights and sits 13th overall. The Jets also own the fifth-best goals-against-average in the league, even after getting scorched by the Flames.

"I think when we play our game and are confident, we’re a good team. I think (Wednesday) was the first game we really got down early, and no one really lost their mind or lost their cool," said defenceman Jacob Trouba.

Some areas of ongoing angst include how the Jets manage the puck in their own end, which was on full display in Calgary. There were far too many blunders and brain cramps that came back to bite them. At the top of the list is veteran Tyler Myers, who is truly struggling on a third-pairing right now along with journeyman defenceman Joe Morrow.

Perhaps it's time to sit one or both of them down for a game or two and give Sami Niku a look, just to see what the reigning AHL defenceman of the year can do. Or why not Tucker Poolman, currently biding his time patiently with the Manitoba Moose?

Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck also had a setback Wednesday night, getting pulled for the first time in a calendar year after giving up three goals on just nine shots. Hellebuyck had been playing well of late after a bit of a lacklustre start, so it's possibly just a blip. But it's worth keeping an eye on, especially with backup Laurent Brossoit playing so well and champing at the bit for more action.

Then there's the injury bug, or lack thereof. Defenceman Dmitry Kulikov is the only player to be felled so far, which represents a run of good luck. Can it continue? The Jets certainly hope so, but a look around the NHL at the number of wounded regulars suggests nothing is permanent. How they handle any such adversity if and when it comes will be another key.

"I think the last little bit we’ve been where we want to be. I think our game is inching close to how we want it. We had to grind the first handful of games, first 10 or so games. I think we’re in a place now where we have a lot of confidence in what we do, in everyone’s role, everyone’s job. We’ve been having quite a bit of success doing that lately," Wheeler concluded Wednesday night at Scotiabank Saddledome.

Moments later, the captain hit the shower.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.

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