The Winnipeg Jets' lost weekend concluded in heartbreaking fashion Sunday night, if the 32nd game of any NHL season can actually be described as heartbreaking. The road-weary Jets were hanging in with the Edmonton Oilers until flashy rookie Patrik Laine did something he's done a lot of this season, and conjured up another goal.
Sadly, this one went directly into his own net; an own goal; and it left the Jets on the wrong side of a 3-2 score in their fourth consecutive defeat. It was the 28th game the Jets had played in 49 days, and the fact that coach Paul Maurice knew that exactly tells you something about their crazy, busy schedule.
Maurice is not given to hyperbole and started coaching in the National Hockey League back in 1995. He will tell you he's never seen a season quite like this one, which started five days later than a year ago (because of the World Cup), but finishes on the exact same date in the spring, April 9.
"I don't know if it's the new NHL, or it's just an unusual season, or if it's the geographic situation we're in," Maurice said. "Maybe we've just got to get used to it."
The 2016-17 NHL season is unusual and covers 173 days altogether, once the Christmas and all-star breaks are subtracted, according to figures provided by the Elias Sports Bureau. For comparison purposes, that's four days fewer than last year, six days fewer than the year before and seven days fewer than the year before that.
But what's new and unique to this season is that every team has been granted a bye week – Winnipeg's falls between Feb. 21 and 28 – for the first time in NHL history.
In effect, it means teams need to fit 82 games into 168 possible playing days – leaving them with anywhere from nine to 12 fewer available days to do so compared with the past three seasons.
Winnipeg has played the most games so far (32). Columbus has played the fewest at 26, with nine other NHL teams at 27.
That scheduling imbalance has taken its toll on the Jets of late and makes it difficult to assess exactly what they have – and what they might be capable of over the final 50 games, when their version of the compressed schedule lightens up.
"I'd like to think that the teams we've played five or six more games than, are going to have the same thing coming down the pipe at some point," Maurice said.
"Not sure if that's going to happen, but we've survived to this point – and then it will be up to us to make hay when the sun is shining."
If there's one piece of good news for the Jets, it is how well centre Bryan Little has played since he returning to the lineup on Nov. 29. Little has endured through the most luckless stretch of a career that's now in its 10th season.
After he missed the final 25 games of past season as a result of a fractured vertebrae, Little was then injured on his third shift of opening night in a collision with Carolina Hurricane Bryan Bickell and was out for 23 games.
Without him, the Jets stayed barely competitive in a Central Division that doesn't have the lustre of previous years, which may be the most important development of all because it has kept them in the playoff hunt.
Now, with Little and emerging star Mark Scheifele in the lineup, they have an enviable one-two punch down the middle. Little has played some with Drew Stafford and Blake Wheeler, and other times with Nikolaj Ehlers and Laine.
"They're two very different looks," Little said. "Stafford and Wheeler are good players, but what they bring is a bit different than playing with the young kids. I don't have to say a lot to the older guys. They know it just as well. For the younger guys, you've got to talk to them a lot – communicate with them, and try to figure out what they're thinking on the ice."
The Jets have until Thursday to regroup, before starting a two-game homestand against the Florida Panthers, after which they travel to Vancouver to play back-to-back games against the Canucks before the Christmas break.
Four days off will give them a chance to rest and practise and see what a mostly full lineup might look like when play resumes.
"If you take the age of our group and consider 135 man-games lost, I think we've been very consistent," Maurice said.
"At one point, we lost five games in a row, so that's not very good, but we only had one game in there that I didn't think we gave what we had. We've been really resilient and really consistent in our effort … Our fight's been great."
Now, if they could just translate that fight into better results in the standings.