WINNIPEG — Somewhere along the line, the Winnipeg Jets lost their way.
It’s as if the search for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs had been called off early. By Christmas Day, they already knew they’d be there. Firmly planted in first place in the Central Division, and with only one real threat to their throne to be seen, the Jets switched on autopilot somewhere around New Year’s Day. They had hit cruising altitude and kicked back to enjoy the flight.
Winnipeg proved a year earlier that they could be a dominant side. A season with 52 wins is a statement, and they made it. A four-point lead for first place in the Central on New Year’s Eve in the following season was further affirmation. A step forward. Winnipeg were the top dogs in the division. They won the territorial scrap in Game 7 in the second round of last year’s playoffs against the Nashville Predators. They owned the yard now and surpassed the Predators as Central favorites — and by extension, Cup darlings.
But the turbulence hit, and it struck hard, flinging around a Jets team that hadn’t experienced much adversity up until that point.
First, Dustin Byfuglien went down. Then he came back but was thrown to the sidelines once again a week later. Josh Morrissey was next 10 days after that. Byfuglien would miss 34 of the next 39 games and Morrissey would sit for the final 20.
The resulting tailspin exposed Winnipeg’s lack of adequate depth on defense. Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline day acquisition did his best Morrissey impression, but the Jets were forced to run Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov harder, and it showed.
Third-period leads weren’t a safe bet any longer. The Jets, who were 42-1-1 when leading after two periods a year earlier, finished with nine losses in the same scenario this season.
And that first place spot they held for much of the year was finally relinquished in Game 81 and they had to settle for second place in the division and a whole lot of wounds that needed to be licked.
Two devastating injuries mixed with a shot of complacency was a tonic the Jets ended up drinking.
“I think last year we were so set on proving ourselves,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday. “We’ve only been in the playoffs once and it was a short time. We really wanted to show that we could be a contender and we weren’t used to being in that position.
“[This year], we got off to such a good start that maybe a little complacency set in. But at the same time, you lose Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien at the same time and those are big holes to fill on the backend. I think the loss of both of those guys can’t be understated. They’re huge contributors to our team. Obviously, being comfortably in a playoff position since, basically, January, you kind of know where you’re going to be at the end of the year.”
The eyes met the math with the Jets and their two halves to the season showed wildly different teams:
Jets from opening day to Dec. 31
• 50.91 CF% (10th)
• 50.73 xGF% (14th)
Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
• 47.22 CF% (25th)
• 45.01 xGF% (30th)
Laine had 24 goals as of Jan.1. He’d finish the season with 30, which is about all you need to know about how much of a struggle the second half was for the sniper.
Laine admitted Tuesday that he had a tough regular season. He didn’t really need to say the words, however. His body language outside of a stretch of three games where he had four goals, told the whole story. Dejected Laine had been seen around these parts before, but not nearly as long has he stuck around this time.
The 20-year-old Finn ended the season with one goal in 19 games.
“Well, based on my goal scoring it’s obviously not that high,” Laine said of his confidence meter.
Asked if he’s been studying the tendencies of rookie sensation Jordan Binnington, Laine smiled.
“I’ll probably watch something, but right now with my confidence I’ll just try to hit the net,” he said. “I think I had a tough regular season and playoffs are different. Now it doesn’t matter who scores, at least if somebody scores that’s good for us. Hopefully, I can help the team win. If it’s not goals, then something else. But there’s a lot of things we can do.”
In a game that seemed to be more of an aberration than anything, the Jets trounced the Predators 5-0 in the middle of March.
In that game, Winnipeg’s potential was on full display. Their quickness dictated the game, stifling the Predators at every juncture. There was no let-up, either. They simply throttled a team many believe has the best defense in the show.
The Jets have been preaching from the pulpit and using that game as one this season where they displayed the ferocity they believe they can unleash beginning on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Winnipeg’s run-in was so poor and St. Louis’ was so good (although the difference in wins between both teams was actually just one), however, that St. Louis has been pegged by many as the favorites to move on.
And there’s merit to that.
Winnipeg’s record over the second half of the season would have had them sitting in a fight for a wildcard spot. No team not named the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record than St. Louis, who leaned on fantastic shot suppression and brilliant goaltending. The tables flipped, but the Jets feel certain they’re ready to up the ante.
“I think you’re going to see a team that’s been able to get up for the big games against really good teams all year,” Lowry said, listing of specifics, such as their win against the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the year, among other battles.
“We know the team we are,” Mark Scheifele added.
Scheifele was an unstoppable force through two rounds last season and put up career-year numbers this year.
“We had our good stretches, our bad stretches,” he said. “We know what makes us a good team. It’s about putting it on the ice. It’s not about talking about it, saying what we’re going to do. It all comes down to putting it on the ice. Walking the walk.”
The Jets didn’t get the Vezina runner-up goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck as they did in 2017-18. Part of that was so-so start and was followed up by some big losses on the blue line. Hellebuyck has returned to that form, however. In his final 10 appearances of the season, Hellebuyck put up a .930 save percentage.
Is he ready?
“Yes, I am. I can honestly say that,” Hellebuyck said. “I like where my game is at. My mind is right. I’m ready for the battle.”
That battle commences on Wednesday night.