OPIN­ION

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS - Mike.mcintyre@freep­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @mikem­cin­tyrewpg

URE, it’s early. But there’s al­ready sev­eral po­ten­tial road­blocks emerg­ing in what many Winnipeg Jets fans no doubt hoped and dreamed would be a smooth ride through the reg­u­lar sea­son, into the play­offs and right to the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal.

At first blush, the 2-2-0 start seems perfectly re­spectable given the tough ter­rain the Jets have had to nav­i­gate right out of the start­ing blocks. Play­ing a pair of road games against divi­sion ri­vals, com­ing home to face a two-time cham­pion, and then head­ing back into en­emy ter­ri­tory against a hos­tile foe that likely spent months dream­ing of re­venge is a tall task for any team, even one as tal­ented as the Jets.

Would three or four wins have been fan­tas­tic? Of course. But a split is noth­ing to sneeze at, at least if you were sim­ply look­ing at the re­sults on pa­per.

But the game is played on ice, and we’ve seen enough through the first 10 days of the sched­ule to throw up a few cau­tion flags.

And pose three key ques­tions:

1) Sure, it’s early. But what the heck has got­ten into these guys?

Look, we ex­pected the Jets to come out with a bit of a chip on their shoul­der, given all the train­ing camp talk about how last year’s fran­chise-record run still left them feel­ing empty and with some­thing to prove.

But we fig­ured any sub­se­quent pun­ish­ment would be meted out against their op­po­nents. In­stead, Winnipeg is suf­fer­ing from plenty of self-in­flicted wounds af­ter be­ing short­handed a whop­ping 20 times through their first four games, while only draw­ing 10 power plays of their own.

That in­cludes eight straight and nine over­all in Thurs­day night’s break­down at Bridge­stone Arena, where the Nashville Preda­tors seem­ingly spent the whole night on the power play. And while they some­how weren’t able to cash in on any of them, they still skated away with a 3-0 vic­tory.

Per­haps most alarm­ing is the re­sponse from Jets head coach Paul Mau­rice and sev­eral vet­eran play­ers af­ter the game, who seemed to adopt a woe-is-us men­tal­ity. Mau­rice sug­gested his club only de­served two of the penal­ties, while cap­tain Blake Wheeler said it’s “not my job” to ex­plain the pa­rade to the penalty box. If not the cap­tain, then who?

This wasn’t a case of the young kids get­ting car­ried away. It was the vet­eran lead­ers who were the big­gest cul­prits. You might not have agreed with all the calls, but you have to ad­mit the Jets made it pretty easy with their reck­less play.

Wheeler was whis­tled for a rough­ing penalty for try­ing to fight Filip Fors­berg. De­fence­man Ja­cob Trouba had a hat trick of fool­ish plays with cross­check, slash and in­ter­fer­ence mi­nors.

S●

THE Winnipeg Blue Bombers are hop­ing the third time’s the charm when they meet the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers this af­ter­noon at In­vestors Group Field.

The Bombers for­feited any chance at win­ning the sea­son se­ries be­tween the two prairie and di­vi­sional ri­vals, with the Roughrid­ers earn­ing backto-back wins ear­lier this sea­son. The fact Winnipeg has lost the sea­son se­ries is im­por­tant be­cause it’s the tiebreaker in the event the teams fin­ish even in the stand­ings.

Given that, the Bombers (8-7) will need a win to help se­cure a play­off spot. They are cur­rently in third place in the West but if they plan on host­ing a play­off game, they’ll have to catch the Roughrid­ers (10-5), who sit in sec­ond. A loss would end that bid and se­cure Saskatchewan a play­off game at Mo­saic Sta­dium.

Rear­guard Tyler My­ers took a

10-minute mis­con­duct for mock clap­ping at the ref­er­ees. Al­ter­nate cap­tain Dustin Byfuglien took a bla­tant in­ter­fer­ence penalty by run­ning Nick Bonino into the cross­bar. Cen­tre Mark Scheifele took a mis­con­duct at the con­clu­sion of the game.

If the Nashville con­test was sup­posed to be some kind of a state­ment game for the Jets, then the mes­sage they sent to the rest of the NHL is just how easy it is to get un­der their skin.

2) Sure, it’s early. But what’s hap­pened to the po­tent of­fence?

Toronto Maple Leafs su­per­star Aus­ton Matthews has nine goals this sea­son. The Jets have eight.

Af­ter light­ing the lamp five times in their sea­son-open­ing win in St. Louis, Winnipeg’s of­fence has gone cold with just three goals in the past three games. They scored once in the loss in Dal­las, twice in the tight vic­tory over the Los An­ge­les Kings and were shut out by Nashville.

The big­gest con­cern is a lack of

sec­ondary scor­ing.

Winnipeg’s top line has five of the team’s goals, with Kyle Con­nor at three and Wheeler and Scheifele each with one. Adam Lowry and Bran­don Tanev have also scored, while sniper Pa­trik Laine has just one power-play goal — on his first shot in his first game — so far.

Niko­laj Eh­lers con­tin­ues to be mired in a slump that goes back to last Jan­uary. Bryan Lit­tle and Mathieu Per­reault al­ways give it a solid ef­fort, but are pro­duc­ing lit­tle in the way of tan­gi­ble re­sults.

Jack Roslovic and rookie Kris­tian Ve­salainen have also been blanked while play­ing lim­ited min­utes on the fourth line.

The Jets have given up the first goal in three games, which means they’re chas­ing the game. That’s some­thing Winnipeg only did in 37 of 82 reg­u­larsea­son games last sea­son.

All of this is mak­ing the Jets a pretty easy team to match up against. Shut down the top line, don’t give them too many power-play chances and you’re likely to end up on the right side of the score­board.

3) Sure, it’s early. But what to do

about the de­fen­sive blun­ders?

Byfuglien and his part­ner, Ben Chiarot, had a night­mar­ish game in Nashville. A Chiarot give­away led di­rectly to the first goal. Two Byfuglien mis­takes con­trib­uted to the other two.

My­ers and Joe Mor­row were shaky in St. Louis and down­right dis­com­bob­u­lated in Dal­las.

Trouba had a lack­lus­tre pre-sea­son and hasn’t ex­actly stepped it up once the puck dropped for real. It could be ar­gued that only his part­ner, Josh Mor­ris­sey, has lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions so far. Throw in the fact you have a US$4.3-mil­lion healthy scratch in Dmitry Ku­likov, and the de­fence is a source of early-sea­son dis­tress for Winnipeg.

How much longer will Mau­rice keep this group in­tact be­fore mix­ing things up? Does Ku­likov, ap­par­ently still try­ing to get up to speed fol­low­ing off-sea­son back surgery, draw in soon? And if he does, will it rep­re­sent an im­prove­ment?

●●●

The next 10 games will tell us plenty about the make-up of this year’s squad and how they can han­dle the in­creased ex­pec­ta­tions that have joined them on their jour­ney this sea­son.

Con­sider this: Winnipeg only faces one play­off team from last sea­son over that up­com­ing stretch. That would be the red-hot Maple Leafs, who they’ll play twice in that span. The other eight op­po­nents were all on the out­side look­ing in last year in Carolina, Ed­mon­ton, Van­cou­ver, Ari­zona, St. Louis, Detroit and a pair of con­tests with Florida.

It’s also worth not­ing six of those 10 games are in the friendly con­fines of Bell MTS Place, where Winnipeg had the best home-ice record last sea­son and is off to a 1-0-0 start. Only two are true road games, with the other two be­ing the neu­tral-site af­fairs in Fin­land.

It goes with­out say­ing that play­ing .500 hockey will no longer cut it. De­spite the fact the Jets clearly have plenty to work on, a golden op­por­tu­nity to make some hay over the next few weeks is star­ing them in the face.

Sure, it’s early. But it won’t be for too much longer.

MIKAELA MACKEN­ZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Bombers quar­ter­back Matt Ni­chols dur­ing prac­tice at In­vestors Group Field Fri­day. Ni­chols will have to be at his best to­day against the vis­it­ing Roughrid­ers if the Blue are to gain two points.

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