The Winnipeg Jets playoff chances were all but extinguished Wednesday following their loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
It was supposed to be a night of excitement and celebration. Between a bobblehead giveaway, a 20-foot tall Budweiser Red Light and the return of the team’s leading scorers on both the blueline and forward, the hope was that Wednesday night would be the beginning of a winning streak spanning through the final game of the season.
Yes, it was certainly a lofty goal, but one created out of necessity.
Back on March 22 – following his 4-0 shutout victory over the Vegas Golden Knights – Connor Hellebuyck adamantly said that his team would need to win “three quarters” of its remaining 18 games in order to keep pace with the clubs it is chasing and earn a berth in the postseason.
“When teams see us coming, they are going to step on the gas, too,” Hellebuyck said back in late-March. “You see this every year, it gets tight, no one lets off the gas. We got to know we can have a night off at this point.”
Three quarters of 18 games would be exactly 13.5 victories from that game onward – So, 13 wins and one overtime/shootout loss, to go along with four losses.
Since that game, the Jets have gone 3-4-0, with each of their three wins coming by way of overtime or shootout. Their opponents over that stretch? Ottawa, Columbus, Arizona, Buffalo, Toronto, Los Angeles, and now Detroit.
It has been tough sledding, ultimately resulting in a crash and roll down a slippery slope for the Jets.
With 11 games remaining on the season, Winnipeg will need to win every single game in order to even have a chance.
But, as demonstrated as of late, winning has not come easily for this club. Whether it’s coaching, the current makeup of players, injury/illness, something needs to change. One thing that’s not changing is the schedule.
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Save it to the Jets to make things even harder on themselves. Having lost four of their past seven games, two of the losses have come to teams ranked lower than them in the standings – much lower.
Now, the team will need to find a way to beat the league’s eighth, sixth, fifth, third, second and first-place team, as well as the cellar-dwelling Senators, Canadiens, Kraken, and Flyers. Oh, wait, one more thing. The Jets actually play the first-place Colorado Avalanche two times before season’s end.
As Hellebuyck alluded to, his mates needed to find ways to win most of their games. And they have not. Making matters worse is the play of fellow Central Division clubs.
As difficult of a task that his math laid out at that point seemed to indicate, the playoff line for the final Western Conference wild card spot actually heightened itself following the impressive play of the St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and even the Golden Knights as of late.
On Wednesday evening, the Jets fell 3-1 to the visiting Detroit Red Wings. It was not a pretty display by what should have been a desperate home club.
Detroit, which had been on the ice just 21 hours prior to puck drop, travelled to Winnipeg through a late-winter storm after giving up over 50 shots the night prior. They were without their second-leading scorer Tyler Bertuzzi and were so far removed from the playoff picture that pride was the lone motivator.
And somehow, they still got the job done.
“To be honest, I don’t think one word has been said since the game ended in the locker room, not one word,” said a bewildered Josh Morrissey immediately following the game. “I think the reason for the silence is the frustration. Obviously, we can’t afford to lose games right now. And that’s a game we shouldn’t lose. Just with their schedule and our desperation, they’re playing on a back-to-back. It’s frustrating. I think every guy knows that in the room. So that’s the emotion.”
Seated beside Morrissey at the media availability was Kyle Connor – the team’s leading scorer and recent returnee following a bout with COVID.
“It’s tough,” the 41-goal man said of his team’s effort. “I think they get a couple of lucky breaks coming the other way. Unfortunately, they finished on that one tonight. No matter what it is — we had good zone time, a lot of chances — it’s still frustrating. We need to come out with a win. That’s the bottom line: we need two points at this time of the year. It’s tough.”
Tough is actually an understatement.
With Dallas holding down the final wild card spot with 83 points in just 69 games played, the Jets’ record of 76 points in 71 contests likely won’t earn a postseason berth. Even if Dallas happens to falter, there are still the Golden Knights and Vancouver Canucks between Winnipeg and Dallas fighting for that final seed.
“I would say extreme disappointment. And obviously with nothing being said, you can tell how the players feel,” interim head coach Dave Lowry said of the silent dressing room. “As a coach you’d like it to be loud, that you’ve won a hockey game. I understand where the players are. I understand the disappointment. That just shows that they care. And that’s a big thing.”
Caring is great and all, but winning hockey games is really all that matters at this point in the season. Sitting on the outside and looking in is not a fun place to be positioned. But giving up an early lead to the 24th-place Red Wings, the Jets just couldn’t find a way to rally from behind.
“After the first period I think we got some big stops from Greiss,” said Detroit’s Michael Rasmussen a few minutes after scoring the game-winner. “After the first period we just put our foot on the gas and won a lot of battles, got to the net, had some kills, and just played the right way and took care of the puck. The biggest thing I think was just our battles.”
That sounds eerily familiar to what Connor Hellebuyck had said his team needed to do just two weeks prior.
Sadly, they have not been able to do so, and because of that, an early spring is in store.
Barring some mathematical miracle, Winnipeg will not play a single postseason game this season for the first time since 2017.
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