Go figure that facing one of the NHL’s top teams wasn’t the cure for what’s been ailing the Winnipeg Jets.
And now a winless streak has reached a season-high five games following a 5-3 loss to Florida on Tuesday night at a nearly-empty Canada Life Centre. The Jets, playing on home ice for the first time in 37 days, fall to 17-15-7. The Panthers improve to 29-9-5 and now sit alone on top of the league standings with 63 points.
As has been the case in several recent games, there was a lot to like about Winnipeg’s effort. But that’s of little consolation in a results-based business, where the Jets risk falling out of the Western Conference playoff picture if they can’t start picking up some much-needed wins. They are now 0-3-2 over the last five outings.
"Frustrated. Just inconsistent play. There’s parts that are good, parts that are bad. It seems like we shoot ourselves in the foot and get away from the game a little bit," said veteran forward Paul Stastny.
With current public health orders restricting capacity to just 250 until at least next month, it was a muted atmosphere compared to the last time they competed at the downtown rink way back on Dec. 19. But there was no shortage of action for those in attendance, especially in a wide-open first period saw the red light get a workout as the Jets and Panthers traded five goals.
"It’s almost as if we’re trying to play for offence too much. We leave our D-men on an island, leave our goaltender on an island," said Stastny. "Obviously you give up five goals, you might win once or twice this year. But you shouldn’t expect that. You score three goals you should find a way to win and that should be our mindset. It’s tough right now. Guys are frustrated."
Mason Marchment opened the scoring just 2:09 into the game, perfectly tipping an Anton Lundell shot past Connor Hellebuyck. It was be the start of a very big night for the son of ex-Jets defenceman Bryan Marchment.
Stastny tied it at 8:19, burying a rebound created by a Brenden Dillon shot for his ninth of the year.
Marchment restored the lead at 12:06, wiring a wicked wrister just under the crossbar after being left all alone in the slot. The undrafted 26-year-old started the night with two goals in 17 games this season, and doubled that before the first intermission. His two goals is also the same number his father scored over 37 career games in a Jets jersey.
Back came the Jets, as leading scorer Kyle Connor was set up by Cole Perfetti for his 23rd of the year at 12:57. It’s the first NHL assist for Perfetti, who scored his first NHL goal a week earlier in Washington.
However, Marchment would strike again, this time banking a pass attempt in off Lundell at 17:33 for a three-point period. He was also stopped on an earlier breakaway as the puck seemed to be on a string. Hellebuyck had gone wandering out of his crease, as he’s prone to do, and it proved costly on this particular goal.
"It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s just communicating out there. I think when things don’t go your way, you tend to watch the puck or just worry about getting your own guy. Where if we’re in the right position, and someone does make a mistake, someone’s underneath them to protect them and we can make up for that," said Stastny.
"Too many times it seems like one lost guy leads to a wide-open guy, and it shouldn’t be like that when you’re playing a good structured game, a good sound game. Yeah, you’re going to give up chances, that’s fine. But as long as we’re there for those second, third chances, to kind of clear the rebound, to kind of make it hard for them, instead of making it easy for them to have a clean look."
Winnipeg tied it up for a third time early in the middle frame, with Perfetti showing terrific poise and patience on the power play to find Pierre-Luc Dubois, who cashed in his 18th of the year. The 20-year-old, who will burn the first year of his entry-level contract provided he plays one more game, gave a clever head fake to buy himself time and space.
"I definitely think the more you play, the more you get comfortable, the more confidence you get. Game by game it’s getting a little better but obviously it’s a pretty tough league and it’s gonna take time to learn," said Perfetti. "I definitely feel it’s slowing down by a hair and getting a little more confidence to make some plays."
Once again, Florida jumped ahead, this time for good at 9:42 when Carter Verhaeghe pounced on a loose puck Hellebuyck tried to catch, but dropped. That goal proved to be the game-winner.
Despite coming close in the final 20 minutes, it was the Panthers who pulled even further ahead when Anthony Duclair made a high-speed offensive zone entry, fired a shot that bounced off Hellebuyck straight on to the stick of Sam Bennett.
"That’s why they’re one of the top teams in the league. If we want to play their way, we’re not going to win," said Stastny. "If we want to trade chances, that’s what makes them so good. Sometimes you’ve got to stick to your game plan, what makes us work, what makes us successful. If we just want to play offence, if we just want to go, go go, there’s going to be a lot of frustration, misery."
Hellebuyck was starting his 12th straight game, including all nine this month, and seems to be showing signs of fatigue. He was beaten five times on 32 shots. Sergei Bobrovsky made 32 saves at the other end.
The Jets were without three of their regular defencemen, as Josh Morrissey entered COVID protocol just hours before puck drop. Dylan DeMelo and Logan Stanley were also placed on injured reserve Tuesday.
That opened the door for Ville Heinola to play his first game of the year, and 14th of his young career. He was paired with Nathan Beaulieu, and that duo were burned on a couple of the first-period goals. Dylan Samberg remained in the lineup as well, and he recorded his second career NHL assist on Connor’s goal. Dillon was bumped up to the top pair to play with Nate Schmidt, while Samberg and Neal Pionk remained together on the second grouping.
"I think we made a lot of mistakes. I’m not going to make excuses but you find out an hour before (the game) you’re going to lose your top defencemen when you’re playing one of the best teams and one of the most offensive teams and you take J-Mo out. You’re putting some guys in positions where they haven’t seen anything like this," said interim coach Dave Lowry.
"Florida’s a team where they like that wide open game, they like to open it up, they’ve got some finishers, and they score a lot of goals.
Up front, Evgeny Svechnikov returned after being a healthy scratch for two straight games, taking the place of Dominic Toninato who also tested positive for COVID earlier in the day.
The Jets wrap up this brief homestand Thursday with a visit from the Vancouver Canucks. After that, it’s back on the road for two more games, in St. Louis and Philadelphia, before the all-star break next week.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.