After scoring three goals in the first 10 minutes of the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the high-powered Winnipeg Jets offense has been pretty much completely shut down with only four goals in the 170 minutes that have followed.
That has helped put them into a 2-1 series hole entering Friday’s Game 4 in Vegas.
It is not quite yet “must-win” territory for the Jets, but avoiding a 3-1 series deficit and sending the series back to Winnipeg as a best-of-three would obviously be preferable for them.
Finding a way to make that happen is going to be the problem because there are a couple of issues right now facing the Jets, and they are somewhat related. One is impacting the other.
First is the fact that their secondary scoring has dried up a little bit over the past few games.
Going back to their second-round series against the Nashville Predators the Jets have scored 12 goals in their past five games, which is not exactly a great number. Even worse is that seven of those goals have come from just two players, Mark Scheifele (five) and Paul Stastny (two).
A lot of the support players — and core players — that have made the Jets offense such a dominant force this season have gone cold.
Patrik Laine has two goals in his past 12 games. After missing Game 3 to an unknown ailment Nikolaj Ehlers‘ status for Game 4 is not yet known, and he is still searching for his first goal of the playoffs. Kyle Conner has one goal in five games. Captain Blake Wheeler is still piling up assists, but has not score a goal in seven games. In all of their cases it is not for a lack of effort, especially in this series. They are still getting shots, still getting chances, still generating pressure and doing a lot of the things that should be leading to more goals.
In their past two games against Vegas — both losses — the Jets averaged 68 total shot attempts and 25 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Those numbers are exactly in line with what they have been doing for the entire postseason when they were lighting up the scoreboard and looking like an unstoppable force.
[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]
That brings us to the other problem facing the Jets at the moment: The goalies get paid a lot of money, too, and right now they are going up against one that is playing at an almost unbelievable level.
There is nothing in the sport that can swing a playoff series in one team’s favor like the performance of a goalie. Right now the Jets are running into the same problem that the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks faced before them — they simply can not solve Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury was probably the biggest difference in Game 3 on Wednesday night and held off a ferocious Jets third period rally by making 15 saves, including a pair of diving highlight reel saves on Scheifele when the Vegas goalie seemed to be completely down and out.
At this point it’s not really an issue of “solving” Fleury. He is a 14-year NHL starter that has played 865 games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs). At this point there is nothing new to discover about him. His strengths and weaknesses are known and well established. Sometimes a goalie just gets into a zone and is seeing everything, stopping everything, and finding way to make impossible saves … and when they are not, every single break or bounce seems to go their way. They can run hot and cold, and when a goalie like Fleury gets into one of those hot phases there really is not much an opposing team can do except keep firing pucks and hoping that it finally breaks through.
As simplistic as it sounds, that might be the Jets’ best approach — and hope — at this point. Keep doing what you are doing and hope for the best. The process is sound. They are doing the right things and a lot of the same things they were doing earlier in the playoffs and during the regular season. They have just run into the wrong goalie at the wrong time and there may not be an adjustment that is going to matter as long as he keeps playing the way he is.