WINNIPEG - Do you want to be viewed as part of the problem or part of the potential solution?
That’s the stage the Winnipeg Jets find themselves facing at after dropping a 3-2 decision to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, a second consecutive loss after putting together an 11-4-1 stretch that kept hope alive.
Although everyone who spoke afterward did their best to put on a brave face and say the right things, the harsh reality of what looks to be a lost season seems to be setting in.
With 12 games left in the regular season, the Jets are now five points behind the Dallas Stars, who still hold three games in hand.
Yes, the Jets remain alive mathematically for a bit of time here, but it’s possible they’ll need to run the table just to have a chance.
Nothing short of a minor miracle - and an epic collapse by the Stars, will suffice.
“We know the situation we put ourselves in. To come out on the short end again makes that hill even steeper to climb,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry, when asked if the mounting pressure was a factor during the stretch run. “Obviously, now every game is pretty much a must-win. We have to go on a good heater and then hope we get some help. Everyone's going out there and wanting to win so bad for one another. They don’t want to let guys down. You don’t want to make the mistake that’s the difference in the game."
“So, maybe a little bit, but we can’t let that mindset creep in. We’ve just got to focus on the next one, as cliché as that is, and really start building from there. We’ve got a couple days now to rest after a pretty hectic schedule, and we got to beat some pretty good teams coming up here.”
It’s not only the quality of the opponent that makes this nearly impossible stretch seem so daunting for the Jets.
As much as they were able to claw back into the periphery of the race, the issues that have plagued this team have now been around for multiple seasons. Those flaws have been exposed for all to see.
Puck management was once again an issue for the Jets on Saturday against the Kings. The visitors notched a shorthanded marker to open the scoring and then restored a one-goal cushion they would not relinquish after a rare but costly turnover by defenceman Dylan DeMelo.
On the third goal -- and eventual game-winner -- the Jets were five seconds away from killing off a tripping penalty to captain Blake Wheeler when the puck bounced off both of Josh Morrissey’s skates and into the net.
That only added to the frustration on this night for the Jets.
Here’s the thing, if poor puck management didn’t happen as often as it does, you could pass it off and maybe even make the suggestion that it’s not a big deal.
That simply isn’t the case.
It can be a fine line for coaches, who don’t want to stifle creativity, especially in highly-gifted offensive players.
“You have to allow them the opportunity to make plays,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “As coaches, if we tell them every time the puck gets in the offensive zone that it has to go to the net, you’re going to have a hard time getting guys to play. You want to give them some starting points - for us we want one guy at the net - we’ll allow them to try and be creative and make plays, but at the end of the day the puck has to go to the net to score."
“We do, sometimes, pass up opportunities when we have the puck in desirable places to shoot. Sometimes we’re looking for the next play, and that’s elite skill coming out. We’re not the only team that thinks and plays that way.”
Mistakes happen and the game happens at an incredibly high pace, which only heightens the importance of making the smart and sometimes safer play.
When it comes to defending, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than the collective group simply not being committed enough.
Could the Jets benefit from some structural changes or tweaks to the system? Sure. But checking effectively often comes down to one characteristic that is highly controllable: Will.
Becoming better in that area doesn’t often happen overnight, nor is it an easy process but the Kings are a great example of what having that commitment can lead to.
Not only does head coach Todd McLellan have the Kings firmly in a playoff spot, they’ve managed to do so while missing a high number of regulars (including defenceman Drew Doughty and veteran winger Dustin Brown).
The Kings play fast and they pay attention to detail and you can’t survive playing without as many as eight guys if the commitment level isn’t high enough.
Nobody is suggesting the current edition of the Jets doesn’t want to win. Of course they do. But as the season moves along, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the status quo is no longer good enough.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff used the NHL trade deadline to once again show faith in his core group and that belief has not been rewarded.
It’s looking more and more like some changes to the composition to the roster are also going to be required this offseason.
How deep those changes could -- or perhaps should -- be will be determined during the final month of the regular season.
Next-year country won’t officially arrive for some time, but the evaluations are ongoing and how certain guys play during this upcoming stretch could ultimately determine whether they remain with the Jets or are given a fresh start elsewhere.
With that comes a certain level of pressure, but it also brings opportunity.
It’s an opportunity to show that this group is not going to simply fade into the sunset when times are tough.
The Jets must now turn their attention to games on Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings and Friday against the league-leading Colorado Avalanche.
The return of leading scorer Kyle Connor and defenceman Nate Schmidt should help supply some stability after the two players missed the past three outings after landing in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols.
But this next stretch is probably going to provide some important clues about what the future holds for the Jets, not just in these final 12 games but in the 2022-23 season and beyond.
“You get pressure every night,” said Dave Lowry. “We can't look at having to win out. We can't look at what lays ahead. We have to worry about the next game.
“We've put ourselves in this position and you have to give yourself a chance by winning your games.”