The runway to get it right is growing shorter by the day. But Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice still believes his group is ready for a smooth takeoff when the playoffs begin.
Winnipeg has lost eight of its last nine games, all in regulation, as they limp into the final week of the regular-season. They’ll host the Vancouver Canucks tonight and Tuesday at Bell MTS Place, then finish off Friday with a visit from the division-winning Toronto Maple Leafs.
After that, a likely first-round date with the Edmonton Oilers, who are guaranteed to finish second in the all-Canadian loop. The Jets need just one more win, or one more Montreal loss, to lock in a third-place finish.
“There’s an underlying anxiety at this time of year, and none of it is based on where we’re at in my opinion. Because there isn’t anything kind of unknown about what we’re seeing out there. I also know that you can run 12 (wins) in a row and you lose that first (playoff) game and the world’s coming to an end, right? And you win the first game and you’ve got the series locked down,” Maurice said following Sunday’s practice at the downtown rink.
“We’re going to get to a real fun, real exciting place in hockey in about a week, and whatever’s happened during the regular-season just won’t matter. I’ve got more hope than I maybe would have had a month ago, when you look at where we’re heading in terms of what we’re going to look like in terms of playoff-hockey. I believe we’re going to be in a better position, believe it or not, right now then we were a month ago.”
No, the Jets are not inspiring a lot of confidence outside their own room these days, with the latest setback being Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators. And the fact Maurice still doesn’t even appear set on his forward lines or defence pairs with the postseason on deck might also be seen as a troubling sign.
On Sunday, for example, he moved Andrew Copp up to play on the second line with the struggling Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mathieu Perreault. Paul Stastny, who will play his 999th career game tonight, was bumped down to play with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. The slumping top line of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler remained intact, as did the fourth-line of Nate Thompson, Trevor Lewis and Jansen Harkins.
“It’s just another line change for me. I have to continue to play my game. I feel like I’m creating pretty good right now. I had, whatever it was, eight shots last night. Trying to make my line mates better up and down the ice. Duby and Frenchie have a little bit of familiarity. I’m just trying to fit in and make our line dangerous, and make it better,” said Copp, who is no stranger to moving all over the lineup this season.
Nikolaj Ehlers is continuing to work his way back from a shoulder injury and there is hope he’d be ready for Game 1, which will likely be early next week. He may slot in with Dubois and Stastny, pushing Copp back down with Lowry and Appleton, and Perreault with Thompson and Lewis.
On the blue-line, Neal Pionk practiced Sunday after missing the previous night’s game with a minor ailment. He was on the top pair with Josh Morrissey, which is a relatively new look for the club. The other two pairs were also switched up with Tucker Poolman missing the skate as he deals with an undisclosed injury. Derek Forbort and Dylan DeMelo were together, while Logan Stanley might draw back in and play with Jordie Benn.
Ville Heinola, who played the last two games, appears to be back out as he skated with Sami Niku on the extra pairing.
“We’ve got some guys that were nicked up here in practice. Poolman didn’t skate, Pionk comes back in. We’ll wait to see how those guys are (today). The same is true up front. We’ve got a couple of minor things we may try to get ahead of. The flip with Stastny and Copp is…Dubois line hasn’t had a whole lot going right now and we won’t get last change in our first two (playoff) games, so I just wanted to see Stastny with Lowry,” said Maurice.
Connor Hellebuyck, who suffered a hand injury late in the third period against the Senators but stayed in the game, was not on the ice Sunday. Maurice called it a day of “maintenance” and said backup Laurent Brossoit would start tonight against Vancouver.
“We had this laid out, Laurent was playing no matter what happened. It gives Connor two days between games. The question will be, depending on how he comes in, do I feel comfortable even putting him in the back-up role,” said Maurice.
“If the playoffs started tomorrow Helly would be in the net. And I wouldn’t be worried about it. But if he’s got some discomfort that can clear up in a day why wouldn’t we do that? That’s all we’re dealing with.”
The key for the Jets is to try to find some offence — they have just 16 goals over these last nine games — while not sacrificing responsibilities in their own end. That’s especially true knowing they’re going to face the NHL’s two top point producers in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in a best-of-seven series, and that dynamic duo has destroyed them in nine head-to-head meetings this year. (Edmonton went 7-2-0).
“You see a lot of goals scored from the net front in the playoffs, not a whole lot off the rush. We have to figure out a way to get a little more zone time, get our D a little more active in the offence, and find a way to get pucks to the net, bodies to the net, get tips and chaos in front of the net,” said Copp of the need to get to the so-called “dirty areas” more often.
“I don’t think our zone time is where we want it to be necessarily. That’s what drives offence in the playoffs so we have to find a way.”
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