CHICAGO — It’s not quite Babe Ruth calling his shot, or Mark Messier guaranteeing and then delivering a playoff victory for his New York Rangers.
But Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine surely raised some eyebrows Sunday when he boldly predicted what his slumping team was about to do as it embarks on the final regular-season road trip, beginning tonight here in the Windy City.
“We’re going to win these last four games so we don’t have to worry about that,” Laine said in response to questions about how the Jets would fend off Nashville (tied in the standings) and St. Louis (two points back) in the Central Division.
Don’t get me wrong, I love when an athlete is willing to go out on a bit of a limb and provide a juicy sound bite. But Laine — who could certainly help the cause by raising his game and finding the back of the net with regularity — clearly has a lot more confidence in his club than the majority of people right now, myself included.
Forget about winning all four. How about starting with one? That wouldn’t have seemed like such a tall order until recently, when the Jets seemingly put their game on autopilot only to dramatically veer off course.
They were dreadful against Dallas, imploded late against the New York Islanders and then pretty much no-showed Saturday night against Montreal. Now, an ugly and ill-timed three-game losing streak — all on home ice — raises the possibility they’ll begin the playoffs in hostile territory on the road instead of a Whiteout-frenzied crowd at Bell MTS Place.
“Ever since we’ve clinched it seems like we’re taking it a little bit more lightly, which we shouldn’t. I don’t really know how to explain that, it’s just maybe human nature you know, you feel maybe a bit more comfortable knowing you can are going to make the playoffs, so you don’t have to try as hard. I’m sure when playoffs come around we’ll go back to our game.”
For most of the year, first or second place appeared to be a given. Not any more.
Who could have predicted that? After all, it was just more than a week ago the Jets demolished Nashville, officially clinching a playoff spot and seemingly putting their stamp on a first division title in franchise history. It was their most complete effort of the season, and should have provided a template for future success.
Given what’s happened since, it’s beginning to look like that game was actually the exception, not the rule. The underlying numbers back that up, showing Winnipeg to be one of the weakest teams in the NHL over the past few months when it comes to analytics on key areas such as possession and shot metrics.
The most important numbers bear that out. As of Feb. 2, the Jets were 34-16-2. In the two months and 26 games since, they’ve gone 11-13-2, including 1-4-0 in the past five.
That’s not just a minor bump in the road. That’s a prolonged period of below-average play.
Talent alone has won them some games, for sure.
But the bad habits and poor decision-making and leaky defensive-zone coverage and wonky penalty killing all appear to be catching up to them now. Big time.
They’ve lost high-scoring games, low-scoring games and one-sided games. They have struggled to hold on to leads and can’t seem to get the big goal when they fall behind. These are all very, very bad signs.
So this final week of the regular season is shaping up to be a doozy, whereas it recently looked like it might be a rather pedestrian affair for the Jets. Every opponent is currently beneath them in the standings while still fighting for their playoff lives.
Players and coaches have been talking plenty lately about how many desperate teams they’ve been facing. Well, when does Winnipeg become a desperate team? They should be, starting immediately.
“You know, it might come as a surprise, but those guys get paid, too. They’re NHL players. So as bad as we want to blow everyone out of our building and beat them 5-0, it’s not reality sometimes. You know, it’s not easy for us right now. Facing some adversity right now. We’re going to be a better team once we get through it,” captain Blake Wheeler told me Saturday night when I asked him when the urgency starts to kick in for his club.
The Jets are supposed to be the bullies on the block, especially in their own barn. Instead, they’re the ones getting sand kicked in their faces.
Which should be turning up the heat on head coach Paul Maurice and his staff, who don’t seem to have many answers. It’s incumbent on them to do so, fast. Don’t forget, this team is built to win now. Like, right now. They went three rounds deep last spring. Anything short of a repeat will be considered a major disappointment. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff once again moved a first-round pick and a young player in Brendan Lemieux to bring in a veteran at the deadline in Kevin Hayes. Laine, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev and Ben Chiarot are all on expiring contracts.
Dustin Byfuglien is now healthy and back in the lineup. Josh Morrissey appears to be just around the corner. There should be no excuses.
Yet, here we are. This team just can’t seem to gain any traction or play at a consistent level or impose their will and style of game on an opponent the way elite teams are supposed to.
“We’ve clinched a playoff spot, so I understand there’s, you know, maybe not as much to play for right now. But we’re gonna have to find a way to be better,” the always-candid Mathieu Perreault told me after the Montreal game, providing a glimpse into the current mindset.
“Ever since we’ve clinched, it seems like we’re taking it a little bit more lightly, which we shouldn’t. I don’t really know how to explain that, it’s just maybe human nature, you know? You feel maybe a bit more comfortable, knowing you are going to make the playoffs, so you don’t have to try as hard. I’m sure when playoffs come around, we’ll go back to our game.”
They better hope so. If they really think last year’s playoff experience is enough to simply flip a collective switch and cure what ails them starting next week, I believe they may be in for a surprise. It usually doesn’t work that way.
Laine did go on to state the obvious Sunday, which is that the Jets are still in control of their own fate.
Consider they made the playoffs in the 2014-15 season with 99 points as the final wild card. Or that a franchise-record 114 points last season was only good enough for second place.
Incredibly, 99 points is likely going to be enough to raise a banner this season.
They actually don’t even need to win all four games in Chicago, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona to clinch. Three victories will give them first place, regardless of what the Predators and Blues do.
Not that it really matters, in a sense. The bigger issue is how they’re playing. Right now, this team is looking very much like an rudderless ship that is going to be one-and-done unless they can get things straightened out in a hurry.
Otherwise, despite Laine’s assurances, there’s going to be plenty to worry about.
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.