Jets unable to close gap in Central Division as common theme hurts team again

Jason Robertson scored 3:10 into overtime to shut down a Winnipeg Jets comeback as the Dallas Stars won 4-3.

WINNIPEG -- Perhaps it was fitting that Pierre-Luc Dubois was joking earlier in the day about becoming a Motley Crue expert during his five-day quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

This isn’t a story about concerts attended, a favourite album or even the biopic, The Dirt, that Dubois admitted to watching three times while binge-watching Netflix and waiting to rejoin his teammates as he waited to come out of the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols.

But if you’re at all familiar with the hair metal band, it’s nearly impossible not to think of a particular song from the Decade of Decadence album after the Winnipeg Jets lost 4-3 in overtime to the Dallas Stars on Friday night in Texas.

In so many ways, it was The Same Ol’ Situation for the Jets.

On an evening where urgency was built in for a proverbial four-point game against a team the Jets were chasing in the Central Division standings, a familiar theme once again emerged.

Good, but just not quite good enough.

There were plenty of examples of sound, structured play, sprinkled in with some costly mistakes that ended up in the back of the net at inopportune times.

There were two goals allowed in a span of 56 seconds, but also a pair of rallies to get the game to extra time to secure a point - including a goal from Mark Scheifele with the goalie on the bench in favour of an extra attacker with 31.9 seconds to go in regulation time.

In most cases, circumstances like that would lend to a team feeling pretty good about securing even a single point.

Of course there is value in any point earned at this stage of the proceedings, but it’s impossible not to view the final outcome as a bit of a missed opportunity.

For the Jets, allowing the Stars to walk away with two after Jason Robertson scored in overtime only made life more difficult and reduced the already slim margin for error.

A regulation win for Winnipeg would have allowed the Jets to pull within three points of the Stars while holding a game in hand.

Instead, the Jets face a six-point gap and are once again left to wonder what might have been.

That’s been a far-too-common refrain for this group.

For a good chunk of the contest, the Jets were committed defensively.

However, they had a sequence that featured an overly aggressive pinch in the neutral zone that led to an odd-man rush and a back-check that started with gliding in a chase position and ended up revving up a touch too late.

And giving up those two goals in 56 seconds changed the complexion of the game.

There were Jets goals scored from Scheifele (his 12th) and Dubois (his 19th) that would be considered as coming from primary sources and there was a complementary marker provided by Jansen Harkins as well.

The lack of secondary scoring has been well-documented and must be on the rise if the Jets are to try and work themselves back into contention during the stretch drive.

Dubois didn’t miss a beat in his return to the Jets lineup, providing a physical presence and making things happen all over the ice.

After starting on the third line, Dubois was back with familiar running mate Kyle Connor during the second period.

In addition to his goal, Dubois had a sneaky one-handed redirection that nearly went in, finishing with six shots on goal, nine shot attempts and adding five hits.

Pretty impressive stuff for a guy who didn’t even have a suit with him on the road trip because COVID-19 prevented him from returning to Winnipeg after vacationing in New York during the NHL All-Star break.

That goal from Harkins translated into a promotion with Dubois and Connor and subsequent bump in ice time during the second and third periods.

It also resulted in a minor demotion for Cole Perfetti, who made a smart drop pass on that Harkins goal but finished with just over 11 minutes of ice time - his lowest total since Jan. 6, when he returned to the NHL lineup for the first time in nearly three months.

This wasn’t an indictment on the performance of Perfetti, it was a nod to Harkins, who was using his speed and creativity effectively and also disrupting things by forechecking tenaciously.

Before the game was over, Perfetti moved onto the third line with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp.

This wasn’t a punishment for poor play by any stretch of the imagination, it’s simply part of the learning process and Perfetti could see a return to an enhanced role as early as Saturday night when the Jets face the Nashville Predators in what will be the third of five consecutive games against Central Division opponents.

Perfetti is up to 14 NHL games this season and his assist was another example of his vision and ability to draw a defender to him to help expand the shooting lane for Harkins.

A similar storyline unfolded on defence, as Ville Heinola took 15 shifts for 11:30 of ice time.

While splitting time with Neal Pionk (also coming out of Covid-19 protocol after missing Tuesday’s game) and Dylan DeMelo, Heinola managed to finish with five shots on goal (giving him 11 during his past two outings).

You can see Heinola’s confidence growing, especially with the puck on his stick and he’s taking important steps forward in his development process.

There will be times in the not-too-distant future when Heinola is tapped on the shoulder a bit more often with the game on the line when the Jets are playing from behind and looking for an equalizer.

He’s up to six games this season and still hasn’t played the equivalent of a quarter of an NHL season in his career (19 total spread over three seasons), so there will still be some hiccups to work through.

That comes with the territory for any 20 year old, but the potential in Heinola's game is shining through more and more and that should serve both the Jets and the player well over the final 38 games of the regular season.

For all of the talk about the Jets needing to win three of five games (or maybe even slightly better) over eight consecutive blocks to chase down the Anaheim Ducks (or Los Angeles Kings) in the race for the second wild card berth, that point will be moot unless they find a way to pass the Stars (who sit fifth in the Central and are currently ninth in the Western Conference).

In the short term, Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry must now decide whether to go right back with goalie Connor Hellebuyck on Saturday in a pivotal game with the Predators or to turn to Eric Comrie, who was excellent in his last start against the St. Louis Blues.

Lowry wasn’t ready to tip his hand when asked by reporters in Dallas what the plan was going to be, noting only that both goalies would be available.

Since Hellebuyck is feeling refreshed coming out of the NHL All-Star break and the Jets are going to play four games in six days next week (including games on consecutive days against the Minnesota Wild and Seattle Kraken on Wednesday and Thursday), don’t be surprised to see the workhorse have his number called once again.

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