Jets’ balance comes due as Vegas ups the stakes
Leaning too much on Scheifele is wearing thin for Winnipeg, writes Paul Friesen.
Paging Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry and Patrik Laine. Please report to the check-in desk of the NHL’s Western Conference final.
The Winnipeg Jets need you to balance out this flight.
The Jets’ playoff run so far has been remarkable for a few things, not the least of which is the historic production from Mark Scheifele (a playoff record 11 road goals), and the man usually setting him up, Blake Wheeler. The trouble is, Scheifele is the only player who scored for the Jets in their 4-2 loss in Game
3 on Wednesday and trail the series 2-1 with Game 4 Friday in Las Vegas.
In three games against the Golden Knights, the Jets have just seven goals, three of them by Scheifele.
Over the entire playoffs, No. 55 has scored 14 of his team’s 50 goals, an otherworldly 28 per cent.
There is only so long the Jets can lean on the man and his right wing, and that time is up. This team is known for its depth up front, and it has to start showing that on the scoresheet. The balance is due.
Or else the Vegas Cinderella story will be the talk of the Stanley Cup final, while in Winnipeg they’ll be left to analyze how it all fell short.
That analysis is easy right now. The Jets are turning the puck over far too much against a Golden Knights team that forces it, then feasts on it.
And they’re not getting production from some important players. Ehlers’ scoring troubles in the playoffs have been well-documented. After posting 29 goals in the regular season, he has yet to manage a single one in 13 playoff games.
The 22-year-old didn’t play in Game 3, due to an ailment of some sort, we were told.
The fact some wondered if he was a healthy scratch says it all. Ehlers isn’t getting the room to do his patented, end-to-end speed thing, so he needs to find other ways to be a threat. Probably by getting his nose a little dirtier, the way most players score in the playoffs.
He needs to find some way out of his funk, assuming he gets back in the lineup for Game 4. But the speedy Dane is far from alone.
Not long ago Little was the No. 1 centre on this team, but after scoring 16 times this season, he has just one goal in 15 playoff games. His ice time isn’t quite what it used to be, his linemates might not be, either, and Little has been solid, defensively. But he’s a smart veteran who needs to chip in. Perreault falls in the same category: 17 goals during the season, one in seven playoff games. It’s hard to find fault with Perreault’s overall game. He was buzzing on Wednesday.
But he has just the one point in the playoffs.
Lowry’s case is interesting, in that you would have thought his game is built for this time of year. Big, physical, and willing to take a beating in front of the net, Lowry’s scoring drought goes back an astonishing four and a half months — his last goal came on Dec. 29. Since then he’s missed 28 games due to injuries. But he’s also played 30 games — 15 regular-season and 15 postseason — without scoring. Which bring us to Laine.
So far, this post-season hasn’t done much to burnish the 20-year-old’s already remarkable reputation.
He’s looked slow at times, gives up the puck under pressure too often and tries to go solo more than he should.
But he’s 20. He’s in his second season in the NHL, and in North America.
So you can live with all that because of his scoring gift. The thing is, Laine’s magic has all but vanished in the playoffs. Sure, he has four goals, including one in Game 1 against Vegas. But that’s in 15 games, well below the rate of his sparkling 44-goal regular season.
Laine has been mostly a powerplay threat, and even there teams have figured out how to take him away.
It appears the amped-up checking and intensity of the Stanley Cup chase has overwhelmed No. 29, on occasion. For someone his age — Ehlers and Kyle Connor (three goals in 15 games) are in the same boat — going through this for the first time can be a painful learning experience.
So cut them all the slack you want and think they deserve. By the end of their careers, this will likely be a blip on their resumes.
But in the here and now, for this Jets team that appears as legit a Cup contender as any team left in the chase, the kids are critical pieces. Pieces that aren’t fitting right now. Along with some vets who simply aren’t producing.
If the Jets are going to extend this journey all the way to the Cup final, that will have to change.
Friday might not be a final boarding call for Flight 2018. But it’s getting close.
Vegas Golden Knights blue-liner Deryk Engelland defends against Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers. After 13 playoff games, Ehlers has yet to turn on the red light.