Not many NHL teams enjoy playing back to back games and not many are very good the second night out. Then there’s the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets aren’t just bad when it comes to the back end of two straight games, they are woeful. They haven’t won once this season in nine tries.
Winnipeg extended that streak Friday losing 2-1 to the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center. The Jets have now been outscored 36-8 in the second half of back to backs.
Heading into Friday’s game the Jets thought it would be different this time. The team had gained some confidence with a pair of hard-fought road wins in Tampa Bay on Thursday and Philadelphia Tuesday. The victories had pulled Winnipeg to within three points of Florida for top spot in the Southeast Division and a guaranteed playoff spot. The Jets also had their big defenceman Dustin Byfuglien back from injury looking fit and generating some badly-needed offence.
“I think that our guys are feeling better about their overall game,” Jets’ coach Claude Noel said before Friday’s game. “I don’t think that there’s something there [in back to back games]that we’re afraid of, certainly I never bring it up and I’m not afraid of it.”
Maybe it wasn’t fear but something spooked Winnipeg Friday because for the most part the Jets didn’t look anything like a team coming off two big wins.
Florida jumped all over the Jets from the start and took the lead on a power play goal by Kris Versteeg in the first period. Versteeg has had his way with the Jets lately, scoring six goals and earning eight points in his last three games against Winnipeg. And he did it Friday while still feeling the effects of the flu which had kept him out of a game Wednesday.
“It’s been a rough little go over the last few days, so, hopefully over the next little while I start to feel a little bit better, but a win always make you feel pretty good,” Versteeg said after the game.
The Jets couldn’t make anything work early on. Their power play was so ineffective that Florida nearly scored on a two-one break away while short handed. The Panthers outshot Winnipeg 10 to 6 in the first and 30 to 21 overall.
“Our team right now can’t give up 20 minutes of free frigging play and expect that you are going to be able to win the game,” Noel said afterward, fuming about his team’s poor play in opening period. “It was frustrating to watch us...I didn’t have enough good players.”
The Jets managed to mount something of a come back in the second and it paid off as forward Bryan Little tied the game on a quick wrist shot that got by Panther goalie Scott Clemmensen. It was Little’s first goal since Dec. 13 and it gave the Jets some life. But it didn’t last long.
Sean Bergenheim scored for Florida three minutes later to give the Panthers the lead back. The Jets played better in the third, but still couldn’t score. That lack of goal production is starting to be felt. The Jets have scored just five goals in regulation in their last five games and they have gone 2-3-0. Both wins came in extra time, 2-1 against the Lightning in overtime Thursday and 2-1 over the Flyers in a shootout Tuesday. Byfuglien’s return was supposed to help generate some offence thanks to his eagerness to fire away from long range. And he did make a difference Thursday in his first game back, getting an assist on the winning goal. But he wasn’t much of a factor Friday and the Jets sunk back to their non-scoring ways.
“I know, don’t ask me the same dumb question again. Are you concerned about the one goal?,” Noel said after Friday’s game, adding that the Jets have scored less than two goals in 30 out of 53 games. “Do I like the one goal that we get every game? No. Would I like to see it changed? Yes. Do I coach that way? No that’s what we have. But there’s still a way to win the games.”
He added that the problem with scoring so few goals is that the team leaves itself no room for error, especially when winning back to back games is difficult. “You are going to have to be perfect....And we’re not perfect.”
Goalie Chris Mason, who played in place of regular starter Ondrej Pavelec, made 28 saves including several that kept the Jets from getting even further behind.
“You can’t afford to give teams freebees,” Mason said after the game. “I think we have to be a little bit harder getting to the net and trying to get the dirty road goals. That’s, in my experience, how teams get out of it. Just go to the net don’t look for pretty ones and just try to bang them in.”
The Jets have four more back to back games this season, something the players know they have to overcome.
“If you are going to be a good team you’ve got to learn to win these games,” said Little. “We can’t keep using that as an excuse. Every team in the league has to play back to back games so we have to learn how to.”
The loss drops Winnipeg to 24-23-6 with 50 points. That’s five points back of Florida, which remains first in the Southeast and earned its second straight win. Florida has also played three fewer games than Winnipeg.
“I like the idea that we’re building up some resiliency, some character” Panther’s coach Kevin Dineen said after the game. “I think that it will pay off for us down the line. I think that that’s a good thing for us right now. You know we’d like to have a game where we have a little breathing room but we’re getting used to these kinds of games and it’s the nature of the league right now.”