WINNIPEG -- Back to the drawing board?
It's not quite that simple, even if a few subtle tweaks could go a long way to finding a solution.
On a night where the Edmonton Oilers played the role of kryptonite to the Winnipeg Jets, there were a number of lessons to be learned from the proceedings, if one was willing to dig beneath the surface.
As the Jets slipped to 2-5 in the season series with the Oilers following a 3-0 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, several things are coming into focus.
The Jets still haven’t found the formula when it comes to trying to contain the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but that’s a problem most teams continue to have.
A quick look at the stats sheet will show you that McDavid was full marks for his ability to post a seventh consecutive multipoint game against the Jets -- and his impact was undeniable, adding two more primary assists to his league-leading ledger.
But in diving a bit deeper, the Jets actually did a pretty decent job of keeping McDavid under wraps at even strength -- with one glaring exception -- since the Oilers did much of their damage with the man-advantage, striking for two power play goals.
On that lone even-strength goal, the Jets' failure to clear the defensive zone proved costly, as McDavid’s counterattack led Kyle Connor to abandon the front of the net to try and prevent the pass in front, leaving Jesse Puljujarvi alone to make the score 2-0.
This was a very correctable error, even if it’s one the Jets have seemingly made on numerous occasions against the Oilers this season.
It’s part of what makes McDavid such a game-breaker.
That doesn’t mean the Jets need to abandon the template, but when you go up against two of the best players in the world, minimizing the mistakes and executing with precision is essential since they don’t need many opportunities to make an opponent pay.
The bigger issue was that the Jets were unable to muster much in the matchups that didn’t include the Oilers having McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice.
Neither the Jets big guns or those valuable complementary pieces throughout the lineup were able to get anything going.
“Obviously you need all lines firing at all times, no matter what team you're playing against,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “Every guy has to be ready at any given moment and that's definitely a learning lesson for us going forward.”
You can't really dismiss this as a one-off either.
After claiming two of the first three meetings, the Jets have dropped four in a row to the Oilers and have been held to five goals during that span.
“They have a dynamic power play, they’ve capitalized on multiple opportunities on that. Kind of just shutting down their two big guys, they always seem to find the scoresheet,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “That’s going to be one of our challenges moving forward, how to neutralize them a little bit. I think we have the guys in here, we have the team that can do that. It’s going to be working out those kinks moving forward and getting ready for the next two that we play them.”
There’s a fine line when it comes to respecting your opponent and perhaps giving them too much respect, which can cause a team to play a bit cautiously.
“It’s just being aware of who you’re out there on the ice against in different situations and things like that. They’re two unbelievable players and unbelievable talents. They lead the league in scoring for a reason,” said Lowry. “That’s how you have to play them, don’t give them a ton of room, force them to have to stop and start, come off the wall with the body on them and just go from there. They’re world-class players, they’re going to get their chances. It’s about kind of limiting the number to hopefully three or less, that’s kind of the goal.
“You can’t just go out there and try to play straight defence against them. You have to go out there, it’s a large chunk of the game. You have to go out there and try to advance the puck and try and get some chances and some opportunities, even when they’re on the ice. It’s certainly important to try and take advantage when they’re not on the ice as well. It’s a balancing act. You have to be aware, be a little more defensive-minded when those two guys are out there, especially together. But at the same time you can’t just solely focus on preventing goals.”
Certainly Oilers goalie Mike Smith did his part, turning aside all 26 shots he faced for his third shutout of the season, though he wasn’t overworked. The Jets simply didn’t generate enough offence or make life particularly difficult for Smith, let alone put together much-sustained zone time on a night when most of its players were unable to find their skating legs.
“We didn’t move the puck particularly well. That’s going to be a real key to keeping those two (McDavid and Draisaitl) quiet,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “But the rush game is going to disappear for just about everybody once the playoffs start. The rush game comes off and it gets to be the grind at the net.
“The games are going to get tighter. I didn’t feel they generated anywhere near the offence they had against us in the previous low-scoring games. More comfortable about what we gave up in the game, we just didn’t get a whole lot going.”
Is it possible the Jets are spending too much time focusing on how to try and limit the effectiveness of McDavid and Draisaitl and that’s prevented them from imposing their will or being able to dictate the style of game they need to play in order to have success against the Oilers?
“I don’t know that that’s a recipe for any game that you play where you wouldn’t focus on their best players,” said Maurice. “They’d do the same to us. I didn’t think that was the story of the game or the matchup. They’ve scored a bunch of goals against us but I thought we did a good job against them, but away from them, we didn’t generate a whole hell of a lot. I didn’t think that we would. I thought it would be a real tight game.”
The Jets have two more meetings with the Oilers and they’ll come after two games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, beginning Thursday.
Those three teams continue to jockey for position in the North Division.
As the Jets failed to close the gap between themselves and top spot to one point on Saturday, the Oilers are now inching closer in the rearview mirror, three points back but with two games in hand.
This race figures to go right down to the wire and is still very much up for grabs.
With the potential for an old Smythe Division reunion between the Jets and Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs growing, those final two meetings next week could serve as a tantalizing scene setter in what would be their first post-season battle since 1990.
Maurice said this stretch of seven consecutive games against teams currently in a playoff position would serve as a valuable opportunity to test a few things out, plus provide a few more hints and clues about what styles could be most effective against them.
So what did the Jets learn about the Oilers?
“Good structured team and they looked pretty tight in their own end. I don’t think we were where we needed to be to test them as well as we’d like to test them,” said Maurice. “It wasn’t a brand new team that we saw. They’ve got some things that they’re good at.”
The Jets have some things that they’re good at as well.
They didn’t have nearly enough of them on display on Saturday.
That's why they were left searching for solutions instead of celebrating a breakthrough after a successful counter punch.