WINNIPEG – It might be time to put any notions of a playoff run to bed.
After playing improved hockey of late, the Winnipeg Jets were shown to be the same inconsistent team they had been all year, getting pounded 7-4 by the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night.
The game got off to an emotional start with the settling of scores following their first meeting of the season, but when things got down to business the Penguins gutted the desperate Jets, who almost need to run the table now to get into the postseason.
When Tom Sestito was called up by the Penguins Wednesday, everyone knew his one job would be to fight Chris Thorburn. To the surprise of many, it was Blake Wheeler and Evgeni Malkin who rekindled their love after Malkin’s questionable hit last month, dropping the gloves just 3:33 into the game. Credit the Winnipeg captain with the takedown.
Off the ensuing faceoff, the fight everyone expected went down, as Sestito and Thorburn rumbled to what most would call a draw.
The Pens enforcer’s role in the night’s narrative was far from over, however, as he plowed Toby Enstrom from behind midway through the first, a terrible play that injured the Jets’ defenceman and got the goon kicked out of the game. Andrew Copp would get a roughing minor for jumping on Sestito after the hit.
“Toby’s at the hospital getting checked for facial fractures,” mused head coach Paul Maurice after the game. “There’s no cost to them, doing that. We’re going to lose a good defenceman for a while. He wasn’t called up to dangle.”
There were also five goals in a fire-wagon first period that took nearly an hour to finish. The Jets took the lead on three separate occasions: a Shawn Matthias backhand, a wicked laser off the stick of Nikolaj Ehlers, and a Dustin Byfuglien marker after the Sestito hit, giving Winnipeg a 3-2 advantage.
But the second period was a complete disaster for Winnipeg. After a strong start to the frame, the parade to the penalty box began. A 5-on-3 yielded a one-time blast from Justin Schultz, and just 20 seconds later Nick Bonino’s second of the game gave Pittsburgh the lead.
Now at even strength, the Penguins continued their onslaught. Public enemy #1 Malkin scored his second of the game to make it 5-3. Three goals in 57 seconds ended Connor Hellebuyck’s night.
It marked the third time in six games that the Jets gave up at least five goals, and the second time in five games that Hellebuyck got yanked after allowing five goals in less than two periods, a trend reminiscent of the defensive inconsistency that has plagued most of their season.
“I’m not laying that at his feet, but for us to beat them, he’s going to have to pull a couple of those for sure,” Maurice said. “We got into that second period and had a hard time keeping up. They’ve got such speed through their lineup that if you’re behind it at all, you’re not catching them. That’s how we got in trouble.”
But Pittsburgh wasn’t done there as Bonino scored again on another power play to make it 6-3, his second career hat trick, and a demoralizing blow as Pittsburgh continued to feast on substandard goaltending.
“The quality of chances we gave them was just too much. We didn’t really help out our goalies,” Bryan Little said. “Recently I thought we’d been playing well and playing really good defence, but I think we kind of got away from that tonight.”
Malkin’s role as antagonist wasn’t finished, either. Having already secured the Gordie Howe hat trick, he drew a ten-minute misconduct on Adam Lowry when the big Jets centre decked Malkin to the ice after the whistle in the third. Jake Guentzel scored late before Marko Dano scored with just over a minute left to make the final 7-4.
“A lot of respect for him answering the bell,” Wheeler said of Malkin. “He didn’t have to do that so it was good to get that out of the way right away and focus on the rest of the game.”
The Jets now sit five points out of a playoff spot with just 14 games remaining, and the Blues have three games in hand, so if the writing isn’t yet on the wall, the cap is at least off the pen. The last game of their six game homestand goes Saturday night against the surging Flames at 6 p.m.