WINNIPEG — The mountain the Winnipeg Jets are attempting to scale is looking steeper and steeper by the day.
And with no real sign of a full cavalry coming around the bend anytime soon, the Jets’ internal search for answers is about to hit critical mass.
Without a suspended Mark Scheifele and with injuries to defenceman Dylan DeMelo and veteran forward Paul Stastny, a depleted Jets roster was simply unable to generate much offence against a stingy Canadiens club that has won five games in a row after this 1-0 victory on Friday night.
The Jets are now facing an 0-2 deficit in the best-of-seven series for North Division supremacy and they’ll play the next two games on consecutive days, beginning Sunday in Montreal.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to keep banging away at the tree and one of these games it’s going to fall over,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “I thought it was a great step in the right direction. We played a great game and, unfortunately, it was one of those games where whoever scores first is going to win. I thought we got off to a way better start and had quite a few looks to tie the game up and unfortunately it was just a matter of being unable to get that bounce to go our way.”
Zone time was plentiful for the Jets, but the high-danger scoring chances were understandably difficult to come by, and despite creating some good looks in the third period when pushing for the equalizer, the Jets were unable to solve Carey Price, who finished with 30 saves to record his first shutout of these playoffs and the eighth of his career.
The lone goal of the contest was a short-handed marker from Tyler Toffoli, who took a smart pass up the middle from Shea Weber and was off to the races on a 2-on-1 rush with Artturi Lehkonen.
Jets left-winger Kyle Connor was the chaser on the play and got caught in between whether to force Toffoli or to try and catch Lehkonen.
In the end, he was unable to check either and Toffoli beat Connor Hellebuyck on a shot that appeared to change direction on the way in.
Not only did the Jets’ power play struggle to get much going while missing Scheifele and Stastny, allowing that short-handed marker was a crushing blow.
“It was the difference in the game so, yeah, that would be the turning point in the game,” said Wheeler. “I don’t think it takes a genius to realize that was the difference.”
While this was an improvement for the Jets compared to the series opener, with the margin of error so thin, there’s another they’ll need to reach quickly.
Scheifele still has three games left to serve on his suspension, DeMelo (soft-tissue injury) isn’t coming back anytime soon and the status of Stastny remains up in the air — even after he skated for the first time in four days Friday morning.
Scoring goals was never going to be easy for the Jets in this series after losing their top point producer, but cheating for offence isn’t an option either.
The Jets have plenty of forwards that can create offence and the depth up front has been applauded all season long, and for good reason — with eight of those players reaching double digits in goals and two more knocking on the door with nine.
Now is the time for those players to try and pick up the offensive slack.
The Canadiens play a suffocating style of hockey and do a great job of pressuring their opponent at the defensive blue line and keeping the front of the net clear.
Right now, if Price can see the shot, the chances are pretty good he’s going to stop it.
Finding a way to create traffic and chaos in front of the net will be essential for the Jets in order to try and claw their way back into this series.
“That would be an area that we can improve,” said Maurice. “We’re a little off to the side, but we got better at it as the game went on. That’s going to be a challenge. They’ve got four big bodies back there on the blue line that make it tough to get to the net, but that’s the place we’ve got to get to.”
Back in 2019, the Jets dropped the first two games on home ice before going on the road and winning the next two games to even that series with the St. Louis Blues.
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Despite ultimately dropping that series in six games, it’s an experience this core group will be looking to draw on as they attempt to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination.
“You learn every single year and there’s still a lot of guys that are here that played that series,” said Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers. “Everyone in here knows what it takes and, like I said before, I think we played a really good game and worked our asses off. So we’ve just got to keep going.”
One of the big storylines going into the series revolved around whether the Jets might be able to take advantage of a tired team, with the Canadiens coming off a seven-game series.
To this point, that hasn’t been the case, but momentum can shift quickly and Friday was the first of three games to be played over a span of four days.
“Those top four D of theirs are logging an awful lot of minutes. They’re big boys, they’re physical, so we’re just trying to wear them down,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “Obviously, we didn’t get the result we wanted but we thought (it) was a good template for us moving forward.”