Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Demons Still Lurk

The Winnipeg Jets played Game 83 tonight as they opened the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it had an all-too-familiar ending that Jets fans likely are tied of seeing and dumbfounded in how it happens so often. For the tenth time this season, the Winnipeg Jets blew a third-period lead and ended up losing when it seemed that all was well after 40 minutes of play. For a team that was expected to take a serious run at the Stanley Cup, holding a lead over the final 20 minutes of play is something they must do. For this current edition of the Winnipeg Jets, the demons that haunted them in the regular season have followed them into the postseason.

While I'm not here to suggest an exorcism of any kind, these are some concerning numbers when you consider the scores, the comebacks, and the collapses shown. Here are the ten times this season that the Jets have blown third-period leads when it seemed they were in control of the game with some notes about each collapse. This was a team that went 42-1-1 last season when holding a lead after 40 minutes, but has struggled with not only holding leads in the third period this season, but building on them as well.

October 16 vs Edmonton with Winnipeg leading 4-1 entering the final period. Ty Rattie cut the deficit to two goals just 18 seconds into the period. Connor McDavid scored at 2:28 to make it a 4-3 game. Jesse Puljujarvi scored at 13:39 to tie the game. In overtime, the Oilers would prevail with their fourth-straight goal as Darnell Nurse ended this one with a goal 1:25 into the free period of hockey for the 5-4 OT win.

October 27 at Toronto with Winnipeg leading 2-0 entering the final period. Nazem Kadri put the Leafs on the board six minutes into the frame before Jake Gardiner scored with 3:11 to play to tie the game. The back-breaking goal came 26 seconds later when Kasperi Kapanen scored to give the Maple Leafs the 3-2 victory.

November 16 vs Buffalo with Winnipeg leading 1-0 entering the final period. Jeff Skinner scores 53 seconds into the third to tie the game at 1-1. Jets and Sabres would need a shootout to settle this, and Conor Sheary beat Laurent Brossoit to give Buffalo the 2-1 shootout win.

November 23 at Minnesota with Winnipeg leading 2-0 entering the final period. Nino Niederreiter scored three minutes in to give Minnesota life. Eric Fehr tied the game at 11:47. Eric Staal scored at 17:29 to put the Wild ahead and Zach Parise iced it 1:21 later to give Minnesota the 4-2 win.

November 27 vs Pittsburgh with Winnipeg leading 3-2 entering the final period. Derek Grant scored five minutes into the period to tie the game, and Zach Aston-Reese scored the winner with 5:12 to play as Pittsburgh won 4-3.

February 5 vs San Jose with Winnipeg leading 2-1 entering the final period. Marcus Sorensen scored 2:35 into the third period to tie the game, and Joe Pavelski would end this one in overtime at 2:49 with a shorthanded goal as San Jose wins 3-2.

February 26 vs Minnesota with Winnipeg leading 2-1 entering the final period. Jason Zucker scored at 18:33 to tie the game before Joel Eriksson Ek put Minnesota up 26 seconds later as Minnesota earned the 3-2 victory.

March 28 vs New York Islanders with Winnipeg leading 3-2 entering the final period. Mark Scheifele made it a 4-2 game with a power-play goal at 6:46 before Jordan Eberle cut the lead to one goal at 7:49. Casey Cizikas scored at 18:14 to tie the game before Jordan Eberle scored the game-winner just 33 seconds later as New York took the 5-4 win.

April 4 at Colorado with Winnipeg leading 2-1 entering the final period. Carl Soderberg scored at 10:35 to tie the game before Erik Johnson scored at 1:49 of overtime to give the Avalanche the 3-2 OT win. It should be noted that had Winnipeg won this game in regulation, there was a chance that Colorado could have missed the playoffs.

April 10 vs St. Louis with Winnipeg leading Game 1 by a 1-0 score entering the final period. David Perron scored at 4:05 to tie the game, and Tyler Bozak scored the game-winner at 17:55 as the Blues took Game 1 by a 2-1 score.

There were some things that jumped out at me when looking at this collection of ten games.

First, four of these losses came on Tuesdays. The Jets have Game Four scheduled in St. Louis on Tuesday, April 16, so let's throw some stats out here about Tuesdays. They played 15 games on Tuesdays - including the four above - and amassed a 7-6-2 record on Tuesdays throughout this season. Among those teams they played on Tuesday, they were 4-4-2 against the West and 3-2-0 against the East, 4-3-1 against playoff teams while being 3-3-1 against non-playoff teams, and were 2-2-0 against the Central while going 2-2-2 against the Pacific Division, 2-1-0 against the Metropolitan Division, and 0-1-1 against the Atlantic Division. And while Tuesday saw four losses happen, Thursdays and Fridays had two losses each with Saturdays and Wednesdays had one loss each.

Second, four of those losses came against non-playoff teams. That simply can't happen if one is an "elite team". The Jets struggled mightily this year against lower-ranked opponents as they seemed to play down to their competition, and this could be a glaring problem as the playoffs push onward.

Third, you might look at the dates where these losses occurred and say, "It's ten games in 83, Teebz - no big deal." The problem is that three of these losses happened from November 16 to 27 - an 11-day span - and three more occurred March 28 to April 10 - a 13-day span. That's two two-week spans in this season where the Jets gave up ten points - they got two charity points in those six games - and a playoff win. That's first-place in the Central with even two more of those lost ten points, and they find themselves down 1-0 to the hottest team in the second-half of the 2018-19 NHL season. This is a glaring problem that the Jets need to address immediately.

The good news? After correcting the problem following the Pittsburgh collapse, the Jets won 11 of their next 13 games. But again, there's an asterisk as only four of those games were played against teams that made the playoffs this season. The Jets should have beaten a pile of those teams, and they did. St. Louis is not one of those pushovers that they played in December, although it should be noted that St. Louis was one of the teams to beat the Jets in December and they were downright awful at that time. Read into that what you will.

So what does it all mean? Well, the Jets need to protect leads much, much better going into the third periods of games moving forward if they even have a prayer of playing in the second round or longer. It also means that whatever is plaguing the Jets this season when it comes to locking down games needs to be corrected for next season. If I was Paul Maurice, I'd shorten the bench if I had a lead with five minutes to play. As much as he needed the full roster all season, the playoffs are a different animal.

We heard Jon Cooper talk about it in Tampa Bay after their Game One collapse when he said, "Our mentality has to be, when we get into these situations, to shut a team down, not to pad the lead." The Jets had the slimmest of leads entering that third period, and the demons from this season reared their ugly heads once more. Let's hope that the day off tomorrow will allow the Jets to exorcise these collapse demons for good and go on a serious run like they did in December.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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