Assessing a team’s performance is difficult based on a small sample. You might not be seeing their best on a given night. You might be uninformed about the larger picture regarding what they’re trying to do, seeing the team on days when that isn’t working. I get all that. And for you Jets fans: I like your team. I was there for game one of Jets 2.0. I love the energy, and I’m really, really happy that you got a team.
But they’ve got some serious problems on the ice, and I think they’re glaringly apparent to eyes used to seeing the button-down, disciplined play of the LA Kings night after night. What was funny, though, was that every problem that manifested itself early against LA was remedied later. Makes you wonder: how come the Jets didn’t play as well in the first 35 minutes as they did in the last 25, when they came back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game and get the shots knotted at 25-25 with just under ten minutes left? And why doesn’t this extend itself to the season as a whole?
So on the risk of offending, here are some observations from Saturday night in LA.
Early on, the Jets’ Blake Wheeler seemed like he was on cruise control. He flipped a puck into the LA zone and cruised backwards to the bench from past the center faceoff dot. His change had to wait on the bench. That slowed the offense to a crawl.
In period three. Wheeler and his linemates Ehlers and Scheifele were flying all over the ice. The Wheeler-to-Ehlers combination was responsible for the Jets’ second goal, to make it 3-2, and Ehlers passed to Shiefele who dished to Wheeler for goal number three to tie the game with 3:21 gone in the final frame.
Byfuglien in period one made a poor clear up the boards, leading to the Kings turning the puck back into the Winnipeg end. It was there much of the time in that period. Part of that was due to poor defense in other areas of the ice. Ben Chiarot made a lazy stickcheck at the blueline and let Carter into the zone. He passed to Toffoli, who scored the Kings’ first goal.
The Kings outshot the Jets 13-7 in period one on the strength of these kinds of plays. But the Jets slowly turned it in the second, getting 13 shots of their own to LA’s nine. And in the third, the outshot the LA team 8-6. What you saw as the second period went on and in the third period was the Jets deciding that they wanted to play hockey.
But before things got all the way better for the Jets, they had the first part of period two to weather. Drew Stafford gave an easy puck up behind his net, which resulted in Andreoff scoring his eighth goal of the season to make it 3-0.
For a while, the game evened up, with, for example, Sheifele and Wheeler aggressively backchecking and Joel Armia and Marko Dano rushing the puck two-on-one but seeing Muzzin get back for the Kings. But then the Jets got better. Muzzin let Nic Petan away behind the net, and he came out the far side of the net and took a shot and saw Copp put the puck in for the Jets’ first goal. The second goal (Wheeler to Ehlers as said above) was the result of the Kings backing off defensively, allowing the Winnipeg player into the corner unchecked.
The question is, why? Was it that the Jets were self-medicating what they’d been bad at in period one? Darryl Sutter thought he had the answer: “I told our players, they’re playing their last game of the year and they’ve got lots of juice. Playing almost a shinny game out there. I think our top guys kind of got caught up on that, and they ended up on the ice on the goals against.”
But it wasn’t all LA slackitude. It was also Jets fortitude. Paul Maurice put his finger on that: “[LA] had something to be gained in this game and they came out hard. We didn’t match that, but we did start to skate better in the second period and kind of evened out some of the zone time. We still weren’t particularly good in our end, but the defining change was that we started knocking things down in the neutral zone because we started skating and then countering back on that, and we got some guys, when they’re skating they’re hard to find, and you saw that on a few of those goals.”
The Jets jammed the net in the third period. Earlier, they’d been nowhere close to it, content instead to get as proximate to the cage as the slot then let the Kings break up their tries. If that’s what they’ve been doing all year . . . it’s no wonder they’re out of the playoffs.
By 9:46 left, the teams were tied in shots 25-25, but finally, the Winnipeg team was getting in on the forecheck. Then they were doing what you do to score: crashing Quick and trying to find a way to jam a puck in. You’re not going to beat this guy any other way, as was plain in OT. The puck went to Chiarot from Wheeler with about three seconds left. He had the open net. He shot. Quick jumped over, throwing his stick from his hand so he could get a palm on the puck. It was the best save of a stellar night for both goalies.
Wheeler commented on the Winnipeg turnaround: “We just stated skating a little bit. We started getting pucks in behind their guys and getting them to turn a little bit and creating a few turnovers.”
The Jets went on to win the shootout with one goal, by Scheifele. So what’s wrong with the Jets? Nothing that some resolve can’t fix. Sure, they might not be able to hang with the Kings on a night-to-night basis. Sure, the LA team might be accused of slacking, though hardly of putting in any weak links in the lineup.
Here’s Wheeler once more: “It’s almost bittersweet, because you scratch your head and say, ‘Where’s this been all year?’ There are a lot of good men in here, a lot of leaders showing the guys who don’t have a ton of experience what it’s about. Hopefully that resonates throughout the room.”
Maurice explained the bigger picture. “When Bryan Little went down, that was the death knell for our team. Even though we were mathematically in real trouble, you’re still believing. Even tonight, you’re not very happy after that first period as the coach, or into the second. But they haven’t quit. Blake Wheeler’s done a masterful job of driving himself, even in some games that didn’t mean a whole lot for our team. We’ve seen that a lot lately.”
Maurice said to finish, “We won’t overvalue that game, but we’ll put more value in that game than I think we did in the last five games that we’ve played. LA at least came out angry early and played well early. So some of our younger guys were big-eyed early on, didn’t get a whole lot done out there, and then a few of them, I liked Tanev’s game again, good speed out there.
Sutter, for his part, is moving on. He said he hasn’t thought about who the Kings will play, and doesn’t care at this moment. He won’t watch the Anaheim game tomorrow. “I’m not really a Ducks’ fan. I’m sure there’s some people in here are, but I’m not that crazy about them.” He finished by seeming to mock the pundits, talking about how great it was that his team had stayed right with the team predicted to be the runaway favorite.
The Kings, no matter what Sutter says, have to be looking at Anaheim in Washington Sunday, because that decides the Division.