The approach is admirable and the willingness to not lean on a crutch — even on days when one would be easy to locate — is part of what has made the Winnipeg Jets so successful this season, even in defeat.
Even when it’s apparent that there wasn’t much left in the proverbial tank as the Jets concluded a stretch of 12 games over 24 days (including nine on the road), the ability to try to find a way and demand more of themselves seems to be at the root of why the battle for top spot in the Central Division should continue throughout the stretch run.
A 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday left the Jets with a losing record for this season-long five-game swing away from home and capped a stretch that included eight of nine games played on the road.
“It’s disappointing going 2-3. We want to keep building that gap between us and other teams,” Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois told reporters in Nashville. “We had a good first half of the season, both standings-wise and with how we were playing. This road trip kind of feels like a little slide down, but there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played and we can play better. We know it and now we have a three-game homestand (before) the break.”
Dubois scored the lone goal for the Jets just 48 seconds into the opening period, converting a perfect pass from Cole Perfetti for his 21st goal of the season.
Predators goalie Juuse Saros wouldn’t allow another shot to beat him, though he was thanking the crossbar behind him for keeping out chances for Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers in the final minute of regulation time.
Connor Hellebuyck certainly did his part in what was a classic goaltender’s duel between Central Division All-Stars.
Hellebuyck finished with 39 saves — compared to 32 for Saros — and the only shots that beat him were a perfect redirection from Winnipegger Cody Glass and a wraparound from Tanner Jeannot that occurred as a result of a shot from Tommy Novak that sailed wide and took a big carom off the end boards.
“I think he’s the best goalie in the NHL. You hate to say you expect it from him, but he plays a lot, a lot, a lot of good games,” said Dubois. “He’s been extremely important to us this season and will be until the end.”
Like Dubois before him, Jets head coach Rick Bowness wasn’t about to let fatigue be part of the narrative coming out of this one.
“That’s no excuse. We played hard, for the most part, and just let up when we shouldn’t have and they didn’t,” Bowness told reporters. “Their goalie made some huge saves for them, our goalie made some huge saves for us. It certainly wasn’t a 2-1 game in terms of offensive opportunities for either team. But both goalies were outstanding.
“Seen enough of (Saros) over the years to know how great a goalie he is and Connor all year has just been outstanding and kept us in a lot of games. Both of them were on.”
Jeannot’s marker snapped a 38-game drought and stood up as the game-winner, thanks in part to Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey stopping Mikael Granlund’s shot toward the empty net.
Morrissey made his way down the tunnel during the final minute as he dealt with what appeared to be an issue with his wrist, but he returned to finish the game.
The Predators clearly understood the stakes, entering the contest 13 points behind the Jets (while holding two games in hand) and outside the playoff line in the Western Conference.
“You play these teams that are looking up at us in the standings and they’ve got to start winning. Teams that aren’t in playoff spots, they’re hungry,” said Dubois. “We look at the standings and we’re happy with where we’re at. But there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played, and a lot can change. And we have to have that same hunger that we had for the first half of the season.”
Saros prevented the Jets lead from expanding and the Predators turned the tables in the second period, scoring a pair of goals while holding a decisive 19-5 edge in shots on goal.
“We started getting a little lackadaisical with the puck in our own zone and weren’t executing the way we wanted to,” Perfetti told reporters. “They were making plays, they were playing hard, they got some momentum there for a little bit. They’re a good team too, so they’re going to have those swings in the game. They’re going to take advantage of it, and they did. Just stuff we can fix.”
The Jets’ fourth line scored twice in Sunday’s victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, but were on for both goals against on Tuesday.
A rare lost draw in the defensive zone for Kevin Stenlund (who lost only two of the nine faceoffs he took) led to the goal from Glass (who has six points during his past seven games) and an inability for Saku Maenalanen to clear the puck along the right-wing boards proved costly on the winner from Jeannot.
The Jets have been able to lean on their fourth line (which also includes Axel Jonsson-Fjallby) during this busy stretch and they’ll need to continue to get them around 10 minutes of ice time per game as the season rolls along.
There are three games left before the Jets hit the NHL All-Star break and bye week, beginning with Thursday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Despite the loss, the Jets have a record of 31-17-1 and sit one point behind the Dallas Stars in the chase for top spot in the Central Division.
The Jets made one change to their skaters on Tuesday, inserting defenceman Logan Stanley for Dylan Samberg as he returned from a lower-body injury that he suffered on Dec. 9 against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Stanley made an immediate impact in the contest, marking a smart pinch at the left point while delivering a crushing check on Glass.
Predators defenceman Alexandre Carrier came to the aid of his teammate and Stanley was more than happy to oblige, landing several right hands in a spirited tilt.
Stanley finished with just under 13 minutes of ice time (including a minute and 26 second on the penalty kill) while being used primarily with Nate Schmidt on the Jets’ third pairing.
“He did his job. We want that big, physical presence back there and he certainly gave us that right off the bat,” said Bowness. “For his first game after a long layoff, he played very well.”
With Stanley (who suited up in just his eighth game of the campaign) added to the active roster, Ville Heinola was assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL
The competition on defence is heating up and this was precisely the type of performance required of Stanley as he looks to try and re-establish himself as a regular.