WINNIPEG — It had the makings of a temporary fix, a shot in the arm to start the longest road trip of this compressed regular season.
Sure, it’s only mid-March and there are 26 games left on the schedule — including this stretch of seven games over 12 days — but there was some buzz surrounding this two-game series between the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers.
After all, by the time the horn sounded at the end of the contest, one of the two teams would find themselves on equal footing with the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs, at least in terms of points.
On a night that was mostly the opposite of the high-octane pace folks have come to expect when the Jets and Oilers get together, Connor McDavid was the difference-maker, supplying both goals in a 2-1 victory Thursday night.
“I’d like to have those. But at the same time, you can ask any goalie, that’s one of the tougher spots to stop,” said Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit, who made 19 saves but had his personal four-game winning streak snapped. “It’s pretty obvious you don’t want to give him any time and space. When he does have it, he’s a pure goal scorer. He picked a good shot, a good spot. He’s got a deceptive release. I mean, you can compliment him all you want, it’s almost unnecessary. We all know it.”
As for the Jets’ top guns, nothing came easy.
Paul Stastny and Kyle Connor rattled shots off the iron and one of the best scoring opportunities came late as Mark Scheifele nearly sent the game to overtime with goalie Brossoit on the bench in favour of an extra attacker.
But the pass to Scheifele in front changed direction off the skate of Oilers forward Josh Archibald and skipped over his stick and he was unable to bat the puck out of the air.
That’s just the type of night it was.
“Obviously, we’re paid to produce. All of our lines had some chances. We wish we would have had more or capitalized on them when we had the chance,” said Scheifele, who survived a scare when he blocked a shot with his right foot/ankle late in the first period, declaring “it’s fine” during his post-game media session. “That’s the way it goes sometimes. You can’t get them every night, so we have to regroup and be ready for the next one.”
The Jets have made regrouping an art form this season, showing resolve at almost every turn.
After losing for the second time in three games and escaping overtime in the other, the Jets find themselves in familiar territory, looking to remain among the two teams in the NHL (the Florida Panthers are the other) that has yet to lose consecutive games in regulation this season.
They’re 8-0-1 coming in that scenario and will put that record on the line in Saturday’s rematch against an Oilers team that has shown plenty of its own, going 6-2 since getting swept by the Maple Leafs.
The Jets are the only team in the North to avoid a full-fledged crisis so far and they’re determined to keep it that way.
“We’re a confident group. We lose one, we just put it behind us and focus on the next one,” said Mathieu Perreault. “We’ve got a great group of guys. We’re playing well. That’s just kind of the mentality we’ve had and we’ve been able to bounce back pretty much every time we’ve lost so far this year.”
After coughing up a two-goal lead in the third period against the Montreal Canadiens one night earlier before rallying to win in overtime, the Jets mostly clamped down defensively, limiting the Oilers to only 21 shots on goal — and only three high-danger opportunities at 5-on-5 play.
Tightening up collectively in the defensive zone is the top priority for the Jets in the second half — and with the exception of the third period on Wednesday night — they’ve mostly been able to accomplish that goal in recent efforts.
Sure, there were the three self-inflicted wounds and costly turnovers in Monday’s defeat, but the Jets have kept the shot volume down to a manageable level in three of the past four outings.
Sticking to that style is going to be essential as things ramp up.
“We’ve been playing a pretty good style in trying to be real careful about what we’re giving up,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “We had the turnovers against Montreal but other than that, our last four we have been pretty darn good with it.”
Surviving this stretch run comes down to a formula that’s easier to identify than it often is to execute.
“Health is going to be No. 1, in truth, and it’s one of those tough ones that you have a difficult time controlling,” said Maurice. “When you look at all of the schedules now, 17 games (in March), a number of four-game weeks stacked up. The team that can stay the healthiest, No. 1, then recover the best is most important. No. 2 would be being able to mentally, then, do the exact same thing, not get in or out of a rhythm too high or too low.
“Certainly too low is the danger here and being able to rejuvenate yourself mentally. The physical part, we’ll try to get them a rest, but trying to stay positive when your game … because you’re going to have ups and downs and it’s going to be very intense and very competitive and in the North, it’ll be very scrutinized, so all the pressure you can imagine is there.”
With both teams in the midst of a taxing portion of the schedule and playing on consecutive nights, offence was simply tough to generate on Thursday, especially for the Jets — whose lone goal came off the stick of a rejuvenated Perreault.
Perreault, who was placed on waivers prior to the season to help create a larger LTIR pool, is up to seven goals on the season, eclipsing his total from 2019-20 — when he was limited to 49 games because of injury.
The Jets’ best line was its fourth unit, which has been a topic for much of the time since Maurice took over from Claude Noel in January of 2014.
Over the course of time, the Jets have used a blend of youth and experience.
This year, at least when healthy, Maurice has leaned mostly on the veteran trio of Nate Thompson between two-time Stanley Cup champion Trevor Lewis and Perreault.
“It’s all based on role definition,” said Maurice, asked how difficult it is to integrate veteran players at a time when youth is often served. “When you sign a veteran guy or when you trade for a veteran guy, is the hole that you have for him to play what he expected? As long as those lines are clear, then those guys are great.
“But the most important piece is that when you’re making that deal or you’re having those conversations and a lot of times it’s in the summer, that it’s really clear about what you’re being brought in to do because if you bring in a guy and say I’ve got you in the two-hole on the left side and then he’s playing in the four-hole because you’ve got other players ahead of him, that’s where veteran guys — they’re more aware of how much time is on their clock. And they all want to win and they all want to play, so wasting a year or not being where they thought would be — and that’s not performance-based — it’s just, they didn’t get what we promised them. Then you can have a problem. We’ve been really good about bringing those guys in and them understanding what the role and the job was and then accepting it.”
There aren’t a lot of nights when the fourth line is asked to play 10-plus minutes a night, but they don’t have to constantly be sheltered with offensive-zone starts either.
Earlier this week, Maurice sent them out to protect a one-goal lead with fewer than three minutes to go in regulation.
The move may have raised a few eyebrows, but it also served a greater purpose — both as a reward and also as recognition for doing the little things right.
“So, one of the things that you notice is that our shift length has gotten a lot better from the start of the year, because now they have respect for that fourth line. It’s their turn to go,” Maurice said recently. “I know that’s a small thing, but it’s not because it makes your whole game better. The respect for the other players on the ice.”
Finding a mix he can rely on to play somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven to 10 minutes has been challenging for Maurice, but due to the frenetic pace during the final 10 weeks of the campaign, no team can survive without getting a contribution from the fourth unit.
“This is what we want. We want to be out there and have a chance to make a difference every night,” said Perreault. “And like I said earlier, we’re three responsible guys in our own end. We want Paul (Maurice) to have that trust in us to put us out there late in games to get the job done. So we were glad to see we got that time and hopefully we can get more of that.”