After the Winnipeg Jets lost for the eighth time in the last nine games – this one a 4-2 loss that included the first career NHL hat trick for Ottawa Senators rookie Tim Stutzle – the shaken club captain was asked what he was going to do. take for his team to get the struggling attack back on track.
“It’s a dangerous conversation, because when you start talking about attacking or things that we’ve built in our game, there are simple things, the typical hockey clichés – we have to get more guys in front of their goalie. goal and create dirty pucks around the crease and hit in some dirty bases. It would be a good place to start, ”said Wheeler. “I also think when you’re going through a tough time and scoring a goal or two a game, you’ve got a hockey team full of guys who are squeezing the stick pretty hard as well. We have three games to hopefully build confidence ahead of the playoffs.
Wheeler’s response was crystal clear.
The Jets are more concerned with defensive strain, while creating more offense is on the back burner, at least for now.
It can be dangerous to draw concrete conclusions about a team with the Stanley Cup Playoffs just around the corner. But as it stands, the Jets look like a team in the midst of an identity crisis.
They won’t be mistaken for a defensive juggernaut and don’t have enough regular season track to suddenly turn into just one. This is just not how this list was constructed.
They must be engaged in this process as a unit of five men and connected with regard to execution. Even on the days when those two things click, the Jets still rely heavily on above-average, world-class goaltenders.
The Jets’ strength lies in their offensive armament, as right winger Mason Appleton became the eighth forward on the list to score double-digit goals on Saturday night, ending a 17-game drought.
Right now, however, goals are tough to hit – especially as dynamic winger Nikolaj Ehlers left the roster with an alleged shoulder injury six games ago.
Kyle Connor, who leads the Jets with 22 goals, hasn’t scored in seven games and has recorded just eight shots on goal during that time.
Even with Wednesday’s four-goal explosion against the Calgary Flames, the Jets have been limited to 16 goals in the last nine games and that average of 1.78 goals per game is well below the 3.02 goals per game. game they average in 53 games (which is good for No. 12 in the NHL).
When a team that’s supposed to be a high octane group struggles to find the back of the net, the pressure builds.
Instead of relying on those offensive instincts, questioning can creep in and, rather than looking to shoot when an opportunity presents itself, looking for the perfect play can yield unflattering results.
Since goals are harder to hit when the stakes go up, the real test for a team is whether they can find a way to generate enough offense to win without it coming at the expense of cheating on the side. defensive.
Right now, that balancing act has proven to be difficult for the Jets.
Yes, the Jets have found a way to remain determined not to allow a large number of scoring opportunities out of the race since an unbalanced 6-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on April 26.
Still, the issues with puck management and defensive zone coverage that plagued them during this slip remain and until these self-inflicted injuries become less frequent, the margin for error will remain very slim.
The message delivered is that the Jets can’t expect to take part in a playoff track competition and try to win a bunch of 5-4 or 6-5 games – even though a Smythe Division reunion could come up. profile.
The Jets need to fully embrace the mindset of playing the type of games that can result in 2-1 or 3-2 wins.
This is the only way for them to have a chance to gain momentum at this stage of the proceedings.
“Well, we have to get this defensive game going. We have absolutely no chance of beating the two teams we will face (without it), ”said head coach Paul Maurice. “We are working hard not to give up on the rush. We have made a very good improvement in that regard. I don’t expect our attacking game to light up and explode. It’s a function of what we have here.
“We have world class goalies and guys who can skate in front and take the pucks to the net. We have to make sure we eliminate what we hand over to the other team. “
The playoffs are indeed a new season, but this recent difficult period came at an inopportune time for the Jets.
Instead of going for it in earnest, the Jets limp towards the finish line.
Sure, they did a good job posting a brave face, but now they have to prepare for a post-season review against the Oilers or Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. .
“We’re trying to make every aspect of our game as polished as possible for the playoffs. Either team that looks like we’re going to play here have some really elite attacking skills and some really amazing, talented attacking players, ”said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey. “Getting our defensive structure in order (is a top priority). I’m just trying to get everything in order and shoot all the cylinders.
Neither matchup looks favorable for the Jets at this time, with the Oilers winning six straight matches and winning the season series 7-2.
Although the Jets managed to go 3-4-2 against the Maple Leafs with another game to come in the regular season finale on May 14, Toronto recently convincingly swept Winnipeg to create a serious split in the standings. .
So where does that leave the Jets?
The only way out of this hole is to dig and do the hard work that is required. It won’t be easy and there is no guarantee that it will be enough to get the job done.
The Jets have something to prove as the postseason arrives and they’re tired of the growing tale that this group doesn’t have what it takes to avoid another premature exit.
The only way to eliminate these growing concerns is to deliver results. Otherwise, more general questions about where the organization should go in moving forward will quickly dominate the discussion.
“We have to find a way to end the season on a high note and make the playoffs,” said Appleton. “We’re a pretty steadfast group. We played hockey for, what, two months or so without losing back-to-back games. And then we lose seven in a row. It depresses you a bit but, like I said, we are a confident bunch.
“We are in an elimination position. We don’t like our game right now. We loved the way we played in Calgary – obviously we didn’t give them anything and we scored goals… I would say we’re in a good position, obviously, but there is better hockey to be played in front of us .