Following Montreal’s 5-1 dismantling of the Jets Sunday night, the Canadiens now have a 3-0 series advantage and Winnipeg is on the verge of elimination. Is it too early to start the post-mortem on the Jets? We don’t think so. What’s happened to the team that disposed of the Oilers in a sweep?
The signs were there in the Edmonton series, where the Jets dominated Game 1, but hung on to win the last three games behind good goaltending and a generous lack of penalty calls. The Jets were able to win with playoff-style hockey -- grind and capitalize on their opportunities, even though the Oilers out-chanced them in those games. The Jets offence was good when it needed to be, but cracks were showing.
Against Montreal, the Jets have simply not produced any offence at all. Just like in their late-season stretch where they lost nine of 10, Winnipeg isn’t getting anything going. They were, however, able to right the ship in their last two regular season games and for the first round. They’ll need to do something similar again now.
In the second round, the stats tell a pretty simple story: the Jets averaged over three goals per game in the regular season, 3.5 per game versus Edmonton in Round 1, and just 1.33 against Montreal in these three games.
So maybe it has been the hot hand of Carey Price then? Hmmm, not really. Yes, Price has been good, but he hasn’t needed to be anywhere near as strong as he was against Toronto.
So what’s wrong with the Jets?
All of their numbers are down. Expected goals are down over a goal from their season average. Offensive zone possession time is off by about a minute. Slot shots. Inner slot shots. Cycle chances, which are central in how Winnipeg generates its offence. All the key indicators of how their offence is producing are down significantly.
Is there a “Scheifele effect”? The Jets are certainly feeling the loss of the big centre, though even in Game 1 Winnipeg still got dominated in terms of expected goals, slot shots, and offensive zone time.
His absence on the power play is a little more obvious: the Jets have not generated much, and have conceded three shorthanded goals while failing to score. Scheifele’s puck handling and chemistry with Blake Wheeler is sorely missed.
There may have been a bigger impact from a lesser-known name -- Dylan DeMelo suffering an early injury took away one of the Jets’ more mobile defencemen. Defensively, Montreal’s best chances all season have come off the rush, and the Jets’ defence needs to back off to respect their speed. DeMelo can match that speed and gives the Jets the ability to challenge the Canadiens as they try to leave their zone. Offensively, DeMelo can keep up with the Jets' high-flying forwards and provide critical offensive support.
Maybe it’s how the Canadiens are playing?
All four Habs lines looked fresh, fast, and aggressive. The forecheck has been relentless, the neutral zone clogged, and the stick checks aplenty, making life difficult for the Jets to mount any sort of attack.
The Canadiens can do this since their forwards' ice time has been highly balanced. In Game 3, Phillip Danault had a team-high 17:23 of ice time and Cole Caufield was lowest with 13:01. Contrast that with Winnipeg, where four Jets forwards were over 18 minutes, led by Kyle Connor’s 19:45, down to Kristian Vesalainen playing just 6:38.
The strategy has been different with the defence. The big four of Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson have logged the lion’s share of the ice time so far in the series, with Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson gaining a little more as the series progresses. Kulak and Gustafsson’s increased time has come mostly at the expense of Petry and Edmundson, and reducing the load on the top two pairs should help Montreal as they try to close out the Jets and move on.
The Montreal defence has been excellent all series in blocking shots, boxing out forwards to give Price a view, and gathering up loose pucks, and the Jets simply have not put enough pressure on a Habs defence that isn't all that mobile.
And when all else fails there has been Price. He hasn’t needed to be anywhere near as spectacular as he was against the Maple Leafs, but he has been his usual calm, solid, puck-moving self, and the savvy veteran presence that they need, hanging on to a rebound to get a change and relieve the tired troops in front of him.
What to watch for in Game 4
It’s gut-check time for the Jets. Backs to the wall, there’s no tomorrow -- all the clichés. But what can they actually change?
It all starts with getting the cycle going more regularly. The cycle was the Jets’ bread-and-butter approach all season -- they were seventh-best in the NHL in cycle chances, while the Canadiens were only 20th-best at defending it. Cycling would tire out the Habs’ overtaxed top pairs, making them chase rather than box out and block shots where they have been so strong.
Even better, make Montreal pay for upping the ice time of their third pair -- Winnipeg needs to take advantage of Kulak and Gustafsson, who will perhaps need to play more after Petry’s hand injury in Game 3. The cycle should also lead the Canadiens to take more penalties, something they have been successful at limiting against the Jets.
The cycle needs to lead to shots from better areas. The Jets need to create higher quality chances with side-to-side movement, making Price move around and look for the threat. The Jets were good at this during the regular season, creating both expected goals and actual goals well above their shot attempt and shots on net rates.
With these changes come the usual playoff goals. The Jets need to score the dirty goals, the deflections, rebounds, odd bounces and messy plays that end up in the net, which they haven’t benefited from during this series.
If they can go back to their strengths and keep their cool, the Jets have a chance to extend the series back to Winnipeg. If not, they’re going to have another frustrating night and then head for the golf course.