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They’ve been on the wrong end of some painful lessons lately. And so it’s fair to wonder if the Winnipeg Jets are about to get schooled in the NHL playoffs.
After all, what chance do they have when the subject matter really gets tough and the pupils continue to make the same mistakes, seemingly unwilling or unable to learn from them? The latest failing grade came Thursday, when a 4-2 lead in the third period turned into an ugly 5-4 loss in regulation.
It follows similar recent late-game meltdowns against San Jose and Minnesota that have left plenty of points on the table and made the final week of the regular-season much more dramatic than it needed to be. All told, the Jets are now 24-5-3 when they began the third-period with a lead; last year they were 42-1-1 when leading after two periods.
“If there’s any kind of wake-up call, you only need to look as far as (Thursday) night. Those are the type of ones in the playoffs that you need to close out. You need to make sure you win those. And it’s easier said than done,” said veteran centre Bryan Little.
Class was back in session Friday as the Jets practised at Bell MTS Place ahead of Saturday night’s final regular-season home game against the Montreal Canadiens (6 p.m.). And while nobody got detention, coach Paul Maurice said the latest implosion was a teachable moment.
“The danger with a young team, especially if you’ve had some success, is to say we’re right there, we don’t have to learn anymore, we just have to play our game. Well, your game has got to get better and evolve and continue to improve. And there are always checks and balances in the season. You take one on the chin, you have a tough loss, it helps you kind of refocus in those areas that are absolutely necessary in the playoffs to win,” said Maurice.
“We’ve had some really good examples, even in losses this month. Great games, really happy with it, and then we’ve taken a couple in the teeth here which we would use and identify the theme of it and make sure we’re a hell of a lot better at it tomorrow.”
Attention to defensive detail and not turning over the puck are two obvious areas where things went wrong against the Islanders. The Jets were reckless at times in the final period, and it came back to bite them in a big way.
“It’s getting back to that working on D-zone side of the puck and treating that as just as important or more important than the offensive side of it. We’re at our best in those low-scoring (games), when we’re really tight defensively,” Little said.
“You’re getting near the end of the season, trying to get ready for the playoffs, but there’s still a lot on the line for us. Wins feel really good, especially that Nashville game (a 5-0 win last Saturday to begin the homestand). And losses like (Thursday) sting even more than they normally do. Because you’ve got the division on the line and standings are really tight right now. These aren’t just games we’re trying to play out. We’re trying to win all these. So losing that one like we did is really frustrating.”
Sure, the Jets are still in first place in the Central Division and very much in control of their fate, but Nashville, St. Louis and now even Dallas are all right behind them, and what looked like a near-certain division title could quickly turn into something much less desirable if the final five games of the season don’t go well.
“We’ve handled adversity very well this year. We’ve been on some highs, we’ve been in some lows. And when we’ve been in that low we’ve come out the next day or the next few games and really responded the way we needed to,” said defenceman Tyler Myers, who played a part in Thursday’s collapse.
“We know the style of game we need to play and sometimes we’ve gotten away from it a bit. It’s just coming to the rink with a mindset that you’re going to play a hard, fast game.”
With his team up 3-1 in the second period, Myers was part of a botched line change that led to a too many men penalty — the second consecutive game in which the Jets have been caught with six skaters, which speaks to the sloppy mindset right now. Then, just 28 seconds into the ensuing penalty kill, he took a needless cross-checking infraction that put his team down two men. New York scored, and that seemed to shift momentum.
“I felt it was a soft call. Guys get cross-checked like that all the time. Guys don’t usually get called for diving, so you may as well embellish it a little bit,” Myers said.
Regardless, it’s a play that simply can’t happen. And it was just one of many messy errors on the night.
“It shows that we can tighten up defensively, especially late in games. Teams that go deep in the playoffs and have success, teams that can shut games down and that’s something we’ve been learning here all year… so in May and June we can do it no problem,” said defenceman Ben Chiarot.
“I think a lot of that, at that point in the game when we’re up one, you’ve got to forget about the offence and be on the defensive side of every puck and not be worried about going the other way… we have a lot of good offensive players on our team and they want to score, but it doesn’t really matter what time in the game it is, we’re thinking offence. It’s a change in mentality — just worry about getting that job done and closing out the game.”
The Jets are likely to get a boost against the Canadiens with the expected return of Dustin Byfuglien, who has missed the past 19 games with his second ankle injury of the season. Based on practice drills Friday, it would appear Sami Niku may now be the odd man out on the blue line.
Meanwhile, Jack Roslovic may draw in for Matt Hendricks on the fourth line based on line rushes Friday, while Kyle Connor was back up on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, while Nikolaj Ehlers moved down to the second line with Kevin Hayes and Patrik Laine.
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.