WINNIPEG – On a Saturday night in Winnipeg, a matchup between the Lightning and Jets provided a flashback to each team’s reality heading into the season.
Tampa Bay was a Stanley Cup contender, making the Finals two years ago and coming within a game of returning last year.
Winnipeg was a young team full of potential, but with plenty of uncertainty about how consistently they could play at a high level and about whether they could contend for a wild-card spot in the West.
Saturday’s 3-1 win for the Lightning showed a glimpse of their preseason promise amidst what has been a disappointing year, while the loss was another dispiriting one for the Jets, who must soon come to the realization that they are not a playoff team this year.
Both teams were coming off Friday night losses, but it was Winnipeg who looked the wearier of the two squads.
“I ran the bench real hard [Friday] night, we looked like it all night long,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “We got stripped and just out-battled and out-quicked on just about every puck through about 30 minutes of that hockey game. They were just better than we were.”
The boo birds were out on numerous occasions, especially on the power play where the Jets appeared completely lost. Passes weren’t clicking, shots weren’t hitting and no momentum was generated.
Special teams were just part of the struggle, though. The Jets were outplayed in every facet en route to their fourth straight defeat.
After Friday night’s loss to Chicago, most of the Jets players talked about getting off to a slow start and how they needed to rectify that against Tampa Bay.
Instead, they did the opposite, coming out sluggish and sleepy. Tampa opened the scoring when Blake Wheeler, trying to skate it out of his own end, had his pocket picked by Jonathan Drouin, who then set up Brayden Point for the goal.
The Lightning would double their lead late in the period when Victor Hedman’s point shot was tipped in front by Brian Boyle.
Just over two minutes into the second, the Bolts would extend their lead. Ondrej Palat flew down the left side of the Jets zone and ripped a perfect wrist shot over the shoulder of Connor Hellebuyck to make it 3-0. It also marked the 15th straight game the Jets have allowed three or more goals.
Even with plenty of time left, an offence that had looked like one of the league’s most potent in January continued their February struggles, with a late Jacob Trouba goal the only bright spot. Ben Bishop was solid in making 31 saves, but in terms of high quality chances, they were hard to come by for Winnipeg until the desperate final moments.
“Everything’s going to have to be better for us if we want to have any chance,” explained Mathieu Perreault. “Our season is on the line, we have to come out with energy. I don’t know what’s happening but we’re going to have to find a way in here, the boys all together, and figure ourselves out.”
The Jets will try to avoid getting swept on their four-game homestand Tuesday night against the struggling Dallas Stars.