If the Winnipeg Jets were a vehicle, suffice it to say they’d be in need of more than just a minor tune-up after purring along for much of the first three-quarters of the season.
But just how extensive is the damage from getting outscored 18-5 by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers in four consecutive losses on home ice — to the two teams Winnipeg will very likely have to beat to get out of their own division in the playoffs?
Are we talking a warranty recall? Or just grabbing the toolbox, rolling up the sleeves and making some repairs?
An initial check under the hood would indicate there has been a significant oil leak somewhere. And after Monday night’s embarrassing 6-1 loss to Edmonton, perhaps the first diagnosis should be for a blown gasket.
There was likely evidence of that during Tuesday’s pre-practice film session. Head coach Paul Maurice indicated it was not an enjoyable way for the troops to spend the morning after the night before.
“The video today, depending on your perspective, wouldn’t have necessarily been very positive, but honest,” said the veteran bench boss, who pointed out that his interaction with his players behind the closed doors of the dressing room was much different than the daily conversations he has with the media.
“At the end of the day, we are quite honest in how we approach and how we deal with our challenges.”
So perhaps it could be as simple as an oil change — and maybe switching to a synthetic for higher performance level. But twisting the wrenches and getting the pistons pumping a little more effectively probably wouldn’t hurt either.
Defenceman Neal Pionk says they certainly don’t need to do a complete engine overhaul when it comes to being a sound five-man defensive unit.
“That’s why the saying in hockey is generally never blame the goalie because the puck has to get by five guys to get to him,” was how Pionk responded to suggestions the blame for the team’s defensive struggles has often rested on the shoulders of the Jets blue-line corps.
Whether it’s something as simple as hanging on to the puck versus throwing it away, or cycling down low and making sure it gets below the goal line, it starts in the offensive zone. And then even in the neutral zone, just making sure the puck gets past the red line, past the blue line, and then we keep advancing zones and making sure they have to come the full length of the ice.”
A lot of that strategy is directed toward Edmonton’s extremely efficient transition game, led by the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who have feasted on Winnipeg for a combined 13 goals and 30 points. Forward Mathieu Perreault says having the radar trained on number 97, especially, will be a must.
“If you’re on the ice against him, you just gotta be aware of it. And if you get the puck on your stick, you gotta make sure it’s going somewhere safe, and away from your end,” was how Perreault described what he thinks will be a more effective game plan against McDavid, the NHL scoring leader who is also a plus-14 in the series.
“We gotta get a guy to throw some skinny picks on him; get in his way a bit more. Every time he’s on the ice, someone’s gotta pick him up and stay with him.”
Easier said than done. But Perreault is also of the belief the Jets have been their own worst enemies by staying out on the ice too long. And he doesn’t exclude himself from that group. So perhaps tweaking the timing change is also in order.
“I think it starts with shorter shifts a little bit. We’ve been extending — hoping sometimes there’s an extra rush you want to join because maybe you can go and get a goal or something — when you should have got off the ice,” was Perreault’s response to the question of what has caused him and his teammates to stray away from what had been successful earlier in the season.
“You’ve been out there for 30-35 seconds, going up the ice, you should be looking to change so we get fresh guys on there instead of changing on the backcheck. We’ve seen that way too much lately.”
That is very likely one of the areas Paul Stastny was referencing during his very revealing post-game media availability following Monday’s loss, when he said the team had been getting away with certain things over the last “10-15, 20 games.”
But for some reason, that slippage has not been nearly as evident on the road. The Jets went an impressive 11-5-1 during a stretch of the schedule that saw them play 17 of 22 games away from home. But Winnipeg has been a very unimpressive 3-7-1 at Bell MTS Place since the last time they won back-to-back games as the host team.
“Obviously the last four haven’t gone our way at all,” said Perreault. “We’re going back on the road later this week. I think it might be a good thing for the team to have a chance to get together a little more.”
But before Friday’s visit to Montreal, there’s the challenge — a term Maurice seems to favour over adversity — of ending a couple of serious skids: the losing streak on home ice and five straight defeats at the hands of the Oilers.
So perhaps a brake job and a new set of tires should be added to the list for what the hockey club hopes to be a long and grinding journey during the post-season.
“It’s tough because you lose a bit of that belief when you’ve lost a bunch of games. It can be a challenge in just staying focused and sometimes just staying relaxed,” Maurice said. “That’s an unusual word, but energy gets the best of you, you wanna try to do more and you get running out of the places you need to be. Or, I think more appropriate to last night, you do things with the puck that are just not as patient as you need to be at certain times and you end up putting yourself in a tough spot.”
Perreault had something to say on that as well.
“You wanna win games in this league, you gotta do the hard little things. Chipping it in and maybe not forcing a play. There’s no hope plays anymore, especially against these guys. You make a hope pass somewhere and it gets knocked down and ends up in the back of your net. So basically it’s awareness on the ice, being smart and doing the hard things that makes teams win games.”
There still could be a little sputtering before the pavement smooths out. And Pionk is confident this bump in the road will not result in a dead end for him and his teammates.
“It’s certainly not fun losing games like that, and losing a bunch of games in a row. But at least this is happening now and not in the playoffs. So we have a little bit of time to correct it. But it’s gotta start tomorrow night.”
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