Jets stumbling into playoffs as Central Division lead disappears

Jordan Weal scored a goal and recorded an assist, Carey Price stopped 23 shots and the Montreal Canadiens topped the Winnipeg Jets 3-1.

OK, hang on a second here.

Weren’t the Winnipeg Jets locks to win the Central Division?

On March 16 the St. Louis Blues were a fixture in the Jets’ rearview mirror, seven points back and an obvious threat as a second round opponent. On March 24 Nashville was four points behind Winnipeg, and the Jets appeared well on their way to home-ice advantage against a wild card team in Round 1.

But objects in the rearview mirror, as we know, can be closer than they appear. And as the Saturday schedule closed, there stood the Blues: just two points behind both Winnipeg and Nashville, who were tied atop the Central Division with 94 points. The Blues — tied with Tampa as the best teams in the NHL since the calendar turned to 2019 — are by far the hottest of the three in the Central.

“Ever since we’ve clinched (a playoff spot) it seems like we’re taking it a little bit more lightly, which we shouldn’t,” surmised Jets depth forward Mathieu Perreault, speaking to reporters in Winnipeg after a 3-1 loss to Montreal. “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.”

(Gulp.) You think so?

The Jets aren’t the only team stumbling down the stretch. The Toronto Maple Leafs are Exhibit A in Canada, but their playoff matchup against the Boston Bruins has been set in stone for over a month now. Also, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien made his long-awaited return to the Jets from injury on Saturday. They’re still missing an important cog in the injured Josh Morrissey, however.

It looks like a good team will be eliminated in the “two versus three” matchup in the Central, while the team that finishes first at least gets to tune up its playoff game against a wild card team, likely the Dallas Stars. When you’re Winnipeg, losers of four of their past five games, a more difficult first-round matchup is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

On Saturday, a Montreal Canadiens team fighting for its playoff lives walked into Winnipeg and won. It was the Jets’ final home game of the season, and third straight loss at home.

“You know,” began a sarcastic captain Blake Wheeler post-game, “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.”

Here’s the remaining schedules for the three Central Division leaders:

Jets: at Chicago, at Minnesota, at Colorado, at Arizona.

Predators: at Buffalo, versus Vancouver, versus Chicago.

Blues: versus Colorado, at Chicago, versus Philadelphia, versus Vancouver.

The Jets have 43 non-shootout wins (ROW), while St. Louis has 41 and Nashville 40. The Preds have one less game remaining than the other two, but have three opponents who harbour no playoff dreams.

Winnipeg plays their remaining four games on the road, one against a likely wild card team in Denver, and — if they’re lucky — a game in Arizona that could mean nothing to the Coyotes on the final day of the season.

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Either way, it’s less about where the Jets finish, and more about the state of their game when the playoffs arrive. Right now, the head coach is tapping his foot, waiting for his club’s ‘A’ game to arrive.

“Our leg drive,” Paul Maurice said. “We look slow at times, especially on decisions and moving the puck. A big strength of what we had, we’ll have to find that energy level because … going into a back-to-back (Monday and Tuesday in Chicago and Minnesota), that’s the area of concern for us.

“Our fast players don’t look particularly fast right now and we’ve got to find that energy.”

The Jets went three rounds last spring, a fact that could be a double-edged sword a year later. On one hand, they have playoff experience. On the other, there may be a misplaced belief the team will be able to turn the tap on whenever it wants.

“We’ve clinched a playoff spot,” said Perreault. “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.”

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