The line blender has been getting a full workout, mostly out of necessity.
During this compressed 56-game schedule, the Winnipeg Jets simply haven’t had enough guys going at the same time on the top two lines on enough nights to lean on what has been working.
So as the Jets attempt to put the longest slide of the season in the rearview mirror, it should not come as a surprise that head coach Paul Maurice is choosing continuity as he tries to put the pieces together during the stretch run.
The Jets have dropped six consecutive games heading into Monday’s tilt against the Ottawa Senators and watched their chase for top spot in the North Division turn into a legitimate race with the Montreal Canadiens for third spot.
That cushion is down to two points, though the Canadiens will face the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs three times during the final six games.
The race has become less relevant to the Jets. The focus has shifted solely to playing the right way and trying to solve this crisis of confidence.
Dynamic forward Nikolaj Ehlers remains sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a suspected shoulder injury, though the Jets will get some good news on the injury front Monday with the expected return of centre Adam Lowry.
Lowry missed the past four games with an upper-body injury, which was the result of a high hit from Maple Leafs forward Alex Galchenyuk.
“He’s just big and strong. He changes the way that we look, changes the way we run the bench matchup-wise,” said forward Andrew Copp.
“He’s heavy, hard and he gives us that added toughness. He’s definitely a unique player on our team. Good on the PK, good on draws. Everyone is going to be happy to have him back in the lineup, for sure.”
Count Maurice at the top of that list, since he has the option to run Lowry’s line against the opposition’s most offensive players at his disposal once again.
Not only has Lowry’s line done a nice job of neutralizing some high-end competition, they’ve also found a way to chip in offensively, which has been an added bonus.
Lowry recognizes the importance of playing alongside familiar linemates when the stakes are high.
“It just gets you back to quick reads and quick decision making,” said Lowry.
“For me, playing with (Copp) and (Appleton) for the most part and just generally knowing where they’re going to be – knowing where they’re going to be on the breakouts, knowing where they like to go in the offensive zone, knowing where I can kind of move the puck to be effective, and things like that.
“Sometimes when you go back to what you’re used to, after being away, you kind of get back to that style of game that maybe you’ve had success with in the past.
“It’s what we’re going to look to do (Monday). I think it’s about being fast, it’s about making quick plays and hopefully we can kind of get in on the cycle, get in on a forecheck, disrupt some things, make it tough on them to break out of the zone and get to the net and create some chaos in the offensive zone.”
The top line needs a spark and Maurice hopes the reunion of Mark Scheifele between Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler can provide just that.
That move has drawn the ire of some observers, since the trio has given up more than it’s produced during significant stretches.
Maurice dug into his reasoning for both splitting them up and ultimately putting them back together.
“I felt that at times that Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler had gotten a bit stagnant, they needed a break, needed a change. Mark needs to play with a certain skill level. It’s just a fact. He needs enough skill on both wings to use the skill he has,” said Maurice, who hinted weeks ago that this move was eventually coming.
“There is some truth to people that have played well together and a comfort level. They get out and… you can see why they function so well together when they’re on. Trying to give guys some comfort here, to get them back.
“You go through your stretches when you’re growly, you’re barking and benching and pulling people. You’re trying to get the agitation level up and then you get to a point where you need to settle things down. I think we’re at that point.”
The Jets’ offensive well has run relatively dry, scoring nine times during the six-game skid, and they need Scheifele to be a driver now more than ever.
Since his very public benching, Scheifele has one goal in three games and it came in the 6-1 loss to the Oilers.
Connor is the purest scorer on the Jets roster and he’s been limited to one goal (and one point) during the past six games.
Cold snaps are going to happen for all players during the course of a season, but the Jets need their stars to shine right now.
Despite the forward depth that has been trumpeted all season, the Jets don’t have a hope of making any noise in the playoffs if Scheifele and Connor aren’t operating at or near an optimal level.
This most recent shuffle puts Pierre-Luc Dubois between Paul Stastny and Mathieu Perreault and it will be interesting to see how the unit fares.
Dubois has shown some encouraging signs recently, but he’s approaching the time of the year when he’s expected to be at his best.
By his own admission, Dubois has got another level to reach and he’s determined to get there before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, the Jets fourth line of Nate Thompson between Trevor Lewis and Jansen Harkins has done its part at both ends of the ice and is coming off a two-goal performance from Lewis against the Canadiens.
The runway is getting short for the Jets in this fascinating chemistry experiment and if this latest turn of the blender doesn’t yield the desired results, there are not a whole lot of other tried and true options left to lean on.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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