I’m not sure such a thing as a pity highlight exists, but if it does, here’s one for the Winnipeg Jets.
No, it wasn’t a goal. Blake Wheeler’s shot deflected off the crossbar and over the glass for a stoppage in play. But for a couple of moments—look at him raise his arms!—Wheeler thought it was a goal. “I was dead certain that it went in,” he said. “…It felt like I scored, it’s a 1-1 hockey game, and it kind of changes the complexion of things.”
A goal there—which, again, it wasn’t—would’ve been Winnipeg’s very first game-tying goal of this series, and somehow just its second 5-on-5 goal. For roughly 2.4 seconds, one member of the Jets was happy about something. If that’s not quite a “highlight,” it might be as close as they get.
Because Winnipeg, after a listless 5-1 loss in what they called a “must-win” game, are down 3-0 to the Canadiens and looking a heck of a lot more like the Jets who finished the regular season on a controlled flight into terrain than the team that swept the Oilers in the first round. (That sweep is currently looking either like an all-time fluke or an all-time indictment of Edmonton.) The day may come soon when we have to reckon with whether the Habs are actually good or not, but today is not that day—we come to bury the Jets, not to praise anyone else.
And man, it’s been rough. The Jets have never led in this series, but more amazingly, they’ve only been tied for 9:56 total over the first three games. And yes, that 9:56 all came at the start of games; Winnipeg has, like clockwork, fallen behind quickly and never once equalized. Their power play has been outscored 3-0 by the Canadiens’ penalty kill. It’s bad, folks.
Carey Price has been lights-out, but the Jets aren’t making him work much, either. Seemingly every puck battle at that end has been won by the boys in red, while seemingly every zone entry the other way has resulted in a quality shot on Connor Hellebuyck. Add in some bad puck luck and you’ve got a recipe for domination. “Right now they are an extremely confident team in what they’re doing, and they’re getting results from that,” Wheeler said. “We are on the other side of the pendulum right now. We don’t have a ton of confidence and we are kind of scratching and clawing to find it.”
It’s tempting and not entirely unfair to want to pin a lot of this on the Jets’ missing men, and how thoroughly they’ve failed to replace them. After Mark Scheifele was suspended for four games for his dirty hit at the end of Game 1, midseason acquisition Pierre-Luc Dubois has been invisible as a No. 1 center, while his promotion and the absence of Paul Stastny (who returned for Game 3) exposed a blatant lack of depth, especially compared to Montreal rolling four lines deep. But no absences can excuse Jets forwards tallying just six shots on goal through the first two periods Sunday, by which time the game was already firmly in hand for the Habs.
On the back end, Dylan DeMelo’s injury in Game 1 has elevated Tucker Poolman to the top defensive pairing alongside Josh Morrissey. Here are a couple of numbers that hint that Poolman is an anchor, and not in the positive sense, but more in the “drag you down to the bottom of the ocean” sense:
Shot metrics-wise, Morrissey carried 45 percent of shots and 41 percent of expected goals at five-on-five against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Poor numbers to be sure, but understandable in the context of his opposition. Morrissey and Poolman have enjoyed just 39 percent of shots and 28 percent of expected goals at five-on-five against Montreal.Murat Ates, The Athletic
Incredibly, to hear the Jets tell it, they’re only getting better over the course of this series, which, again, they are down 3-0 and have never led. “I thought it was a great step in the right direction,” Wheeler said after Game 2. Then, after Game 3, he described the progression as “Game 1 we don’t like, Game 2 is a little bit better but still not quite ourselves. And I think we started the game tonight right.”
Wheeler’s got to say this sort of thing, as the captain, and maybe it means a little bit more coming from him, given that he was a part of a Bruins team that coughed up a 3-0 series lead in 2010. But what’s emerging as the story of the 2021 Winnipeg Jets isn’t a particularly complicated one, and it’s certainly not a comeback story: This is a frustrating team that can be good but not great, one that got a little lucky against the Oilers but is nowhere near talented enough to overcome the combination of bad bounces, being short-staffed, and facing a deeper opponent with a hotter goalie. If this series ends in a sweep in Montreal tonight, it won’t be an aberration and it sure won’t be a surprise, at least not given what’s happened so far to push the Jets to the brink.