WINNIPEG — By the time Rick Bowness made it to the podium, the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets was clearly perturbed by the slow starts that have plagued his hockey club throughout the first three games of their homestand.
At the beginning of the week, Bowness’ message to his team revolved around giving the opponent — the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche — too much respect in the first period.
Things turned quickly on that evening, but in the two outings since defeating the Avalanche 5-0, the Jets provided a couple of lackluster showings that included two more listless starts against teams that are squarely in the middle of Connor Bedard sweepstakes.
Bowness said all of the usual things about the records not being indicative of how the Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks have been playing of late and he was confident in how his group was going to respond after the Jets dropped a 4-1 decision to those Blue Jackets on Friday night.
Despite rallying with five unanswered goals in what ended up being a 5-2 victory over the Ducks on Sunday afternoon, Bowness couldn’t hide his disappointment during his question-and-answer session.
“Good or bad, I don’t look at it that way. It’s just not right to start a game like that,” said Bowness. “Listen, I’m the head coach, so I’m responsible for the way we start and getting our team prepared. So that starts with me. The second thing is I’m not a babysitter. These guys are men. They’re professionals and they’re paid to show up here and go to work.
“My job here is to make that happen. The third thing on that would be: you cannot play this game without passion. Without emotion. You cannot play this game on your heels. And I hate when we’re on our heels. It’s not right.”
There was a lot to unpack in the first answer of the back and forth.
Clearly, Bowness had gone to Page 17 of the coaching manual, which has the subsection that explains how pointing the finger at the top does a number of things.
The first item on that list is that it shows the players that he’s taking the same accountability he’s asking of them. He’s not just passing the buck or playing the blame game.
He’s looking directly into the mirror, searching for answers.
A day earlier, Bowness was praising his team for its ability to be willing to hold itself to a certain standard and when they don’t play up to that standard, there will be critical analysis and occasionally, things a player doesn’t necessarily want to hear.
The unvarnished truth, if you will.
That’s an important part of the process when it comes to breaking bad habits.
The past two games were a not-so-subtle reminder to Bowness and his coaching staff that a lot of work remains on that front.
Bowness knew this was going to take time.
The Jets have not been structurally sound for quite some time and they weren’t suddenly going to morph into an airtight defensive team with the snap of a finger.
It’s a daily commitment and there are going to be missteps, no matter how committed the group is.
Certainly getting off to a 15-7-1 start has bought the Jets a bit of time and supplied a little breathing room when it comes to the standings, but further strides must be taken.
“Yeah, it’s still me and our staff getting to know our players. It doesn’t take 10 games, it takes a while and it takes different predicaments,” said Bowness. “So we had a bad game on Friday and everyone is saying all the right things (on Saturday) but words mean nothing to me. They mean nothing. All I want to see is action.
“I want to see passion and emotion in the way we play. Right or wrong, play with passion, play with emotion and we’ll figure the rest out. We’re still trying to figure this team out a little bit. We are. We’ll figure it out.”
There was a time not long ago when the Jets were able to erase early deficits by leaning in on the skilled players in their lineup.
Tonight, there’s no doubt the skill showed up before it was too late and provided some valuable insurance for the Jets, but it was the sandpaper element that helped turn the tide.
Whether it was Adam Lowry getting the play started on the goal from Saku Maenalanen that kickstarted the comeback or setting up Morgan Barron for what proved to be the game-winner, the veteran centre was in the guts of the game.
“I obviously can’t give you guys all of it but it was just, you know, there wasn’t enough intention. It wasn’t intense enough from us. We weren’t playing with enough passion in that first period,” said Barron, referring to the message delivered between the first and second periods. “We all knew it on the bench, on the ice, and I’m sure you guys could tell from the press box that was the case. We need to have better starts. There are no games you can take for granted in this league, especially when we’re fighting for position in the standings like we are. We need two points every night.”
Then there was rookie defenceman Dylan Samberg, who scored his first NHL goal on a change-up wrister from the left point that had eyes and somehow missed a pair of potential redirections on the way to the back of the net — at least one off which could have led to the equalizer being overturned for being knocked in with a high stick.
Bowness had been encouraging Samberg to look for his shot more as of late and the defenceman from the University of Minnesota-Duluth was more than happy to oblige.
The Samberg marker was all the more impressive when you consider his turnover at the offensive blue line allowed Brett Leason to burst in and score on a breakaway that extended Winnipeg’s deficit to 2-0.
“It’s just one of those things that you just have to forget about. The first one, when I turned it over, I was just looking to pull it and the puck hopped over my stick and it’s one of those things you can’t really do anything about it,” said Samberg. “I came back to the bench and the guys were with me and saying don’t worry about it, stuff like that happens, happens to the best of us and just keep going out there and playing your game.”
Samberg had to wait patiently as there was an officials’ review to ensure that the puck wasn’t tipped in with a high stick.
Ultimately, the goal was confirmed, sending folks in Hermantown, Minnesota into a frenzy.
“I was just looking to get the puck through on the net. Once I got rid of it, I knew it was just a little blooper and I had a good angle of it and I saw it go right up and over everyone’s head and I saw it drop down right behind the goalie’s head,” said Samberg. “I had a feeling nobody touched it, but when they’re waiting there that long, it’s a little worrisome.
“What did it clock in there at, 110? No. It was a change-up. Glad it worked out. I guess you never really know when it’s going to come, but obviously a special feeling. Monkey’s off my back, so to speak.”
Another player who managed to help turn the tide without showing up on the scoresheet was Mikey Eyssimont, who became the latest player to audition in the top-six with Nikolaj Ehlers (sports hernia) and Mason Appleton (wrist) still out long-term with injuries.
Eyssimont took 17 shifts for 11:26 of ice time, but managed to create four shots on goal and eight shot attempts while mixing things up.
“Listen, you love what he brings,” said Bowness. “I just talked about emotion and talked about passion and he brings it every shift. We needed it. You give him full marks. For a guy I knew nothing about, he had a good training camp. He impressed us there. He played with the Moose for a while and we brought him up and man, he’s given us that energy that we need.”
Eyssimont is walking that fine line between fully appreciating the opportunity being afforded to him, while doing his best to show he can handle additional responsibility and ice time.
“Just have to keep paying my dues and do the right things every day, every game to get rewarded a little bit,” said Eyssimont. “It’s nice, but you just have to keep doing the same things.
“I don’t know exactly what it was that happened, but I think we all knew as a collective group that we had to get going and wake ourselves up. I tried to come up with a spark off the start, and do that every game and every shift. That’s all I focus on.”
The Jets have but a single game left on this homestand and it will have its own juicy storyline attached to it, as Paul Maurice returns for his first game against his former team since he stepped down last December.
The focus for all parties will be on the present and you can expect them to say as much, but that’s not to suggest there won’t be an emotional element attached both for the Jets and for the man who stood behind the bench for parts of nine seasons in this city.