Saturday, 20 April 2019

Another Summer Of Blues

In hypothetical terms, the question of who would win between the immovable object and the unstoppable force has never truly been answered since we have yet to discover either in our galaxy. Somewhere out there, those two things may exist and perhaps the question has already been answered, but it's not within our reach yet. However, the Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues may have been those two things as they battled through six games before a winner was found, and the end result was one that fans of the Winnipeg Jets won't like after the Blues, as unstoppable as they were through the second-half of the season, will continue into the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

This series was brought back to a best-of-three after the road teams won both games in the other team's rink. It wasn't a given that either team had any advantage following Game Four, but there was some belief that the Jets might have figured out the Blues following two-straight wins at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis and the Jets coming home for Game Five. Perhaps they found a hitch in Binnington or a weakness in St. Louis' system, but whatever belief fans and experts may have had evaporated in the third period of Game Five as Winnipeg coughed up a final period lead for the eleventh time this season in a loss.

Down 3-2 and heading back to St. Louis, the Jets faced elimination far earlier than they might have expected, so one had to believe they'd come out and blow the doors off the Enterprise Center like they had done in Game Three. One would think that the big guns would be firing lasers, the physicality would be ramped up, and the intensity would be at a high for this season.

And the Jets managed just six shots through the first two periods. Six total. SIX. Yikes.

This Jets team was supposed to be bigger, stronger, hungrier, and whatever other adjectives you want to pin on them following their dismissal in the Western Conference Final last season at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights. We heard all about how in that series the Jets simply ran out of steam after a tough seven-game battle against Nashville, and how next season would be their season as they learned what it takes to win in the spring.

When asked at his post-game press conference about the Jets' health in this series, head coach Paul Maurice warned, "Be careful with excuses. We got beat. I didn't think we had that sustainable gas for the whole series. I didn't feel we had it coming into it."

Um, hold on a second, Paul. If the team doesn't have the "sustainable gas for the whole series," wouldn't that be a direct answer to the question about the team's health? And, on top of that, wouldn't that be the exact same problem that this team had last season in the Western Conference Final? In fact, following the Game Five loss to Vegas last season, Maurice said, "[S]ome of it was mental, but it was the physical fatigue caused by having to spend as much as we spent to get here."

If fatigue crept into the room, it seems to have hit the team sometime in February when the Jets began their two-month stretch of .500 hockey leading into the playoffs. The Jets had players available in the press box at that time to help alleviate some of that fatigue, but Maurice chose to run his horses into the ground, it seems, by constantly playing them and asking them to carry the load. If he isn't willing to give guys rest when he knows they're tired, this six-game dismissal falls directly on his shoulders as much as it does the players. There's no excuse not to rest guys when he knows they're tired.

This team gave up leads in the third period in both Game One and Game Four when it appeared they had played the first 40 minutes in each game with some purpose. This team looked spent in the third period of Game Five when St. Louis rallied for three goals in the last 20 minutes to crush any home-ice advantage the Jets thought they had entering the period. And tonight, it seemed that exhausted team was rolled out again by Maurice as the Jets simply didn't have the legs to break through the St. Louis defence.

For all the talent the Jets had in the press box at times this season - Nic Petan, Sami Niku, Nathan Beaulieu, Bogdan Kiselevich, and Joe Morrow - none of these players saw the ice for any extended periods of time outside of injury relief. Even with the likes of Mason Appleton, Cameron Schilling, Par Lindholm, and Kristian Vesalainen at his disposal for the playoffs, injury relief was all the time that Paul Maurice was willing to give to these players. Does exhaustion count as an injury? Because I'm quite certain that seeing the likes of Wheeler, Scheifele, Little, and Ehlers sputter in the playoffs should have prompted a few nights off for these stars.

With as many as 15 players to make decisions on, Paul Maurice hasn't made the job for Kevin Cheveldayoff any easier with this playoff performance. There are major pieces that need to be addressed - Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Kevin Hayes, notably - but some of the role players who played entirely better than the role they were given in the playoffs - Brandon Tanev, Andrew Copp, Par Lindholm, and Laurent Brossoit - will need some significant thought when it comes to how important they are in this team's makeup. For those wondering at home, they were vital parts of this Jets team throughout the season, and all four likely deserve raises and more ice-time.

While the Jets' window for winning isn't fully closed, the opportunity this season seemed to escape their grasp some time in February when things began to spiral out of control. The Blues played .667 hockey down the stretch as they tied the Jets in points, and they won two-thirds of the games they played this spring against the Jets. That's consistency that the Jets simply didn't have in the final two months of the season, and it cost them dearly when they needed wins most.

Change is coming to the Winnipeg Jets. The big question as they enter the 2019-20 season will be how different will this team look compared to this year's squad? My guess is that possibly two major players listed above likely won't be back, and a handful of the role players will move on to teams that will either give them the ice-time they seek or the pay they feel they deserve. That's the reality of the new NHL, and it's a harsh reality the Jets will face following a disappointing finish to this season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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