RALEIGH — Short-term pain, long-term gain? It appears that was the strategy for the Winnipeg Jets on several fronts Tuesday night in Raleigh.
A 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the lone blemish from a three-game road trip, isn’t necessarily the biggest takeaway here. Rather, it’s who did and didn’t play, what was and wasn’t said and who did and didn’t talk following the game at PNC Arena that will likely get tongues wagging.
No. 1 netminder Connor Hellebuyck was given the night off in favour of backup goalie David Rittich, who was beaten four times on just 24 shots.
All-Star defenceman Josh Morrissey was held out of the lineup with a lower-body injury, the club not wanting to risk rushing him back in. Same with top centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has an upper-body ailment but is close to a return.
And then, once the puck dropped, top players Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nino Niederreiter were benched for more than half the second period, as Jets coach Rick Bowness was clearly trying to send a message even if it might have temporarily weakened his already depleted roster.
Despite these challenges and issues, the Jets did give it a valiant effort, ultimately dropping a close contest to one of the NHL’s best hockey teams.
“Overall, listen, that’s the best game we played on the road trip. It really is,” said Bowness. “We held a high shot volume team to 24, 25 shots on net. They didn’t have 10 scoring chances tonight. So the team game was really, really good.”
Winnipeg, which opened with a 5-4 overtime victory Saturday in Florida and a 3-2 triumph on Sunday in Tampa, falls to 38-27-3. They are now just four points ahead of Nashville for the final Western Conference wildcard playoff spot. The Predators have 17 games remaining, while the Jets have just 14.
Carolina, which had been blanked in two straight games, improves to 44-14-8 and sits on top of the Metropolitan Division.
1. There’s no question the top line of Scheifele, Connor and Niederreiter struggled through the first half of this game. They were on the ice for goals by Jaccob Slavin (4:37 of the first), Brady Skjei (0:58 of the second) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (8:15 of the second).
Defenceman Dylan DeMelo had tied the game just 19 seconds into the second period, only for the Jets to give it right back 39 seconds later.
“We didn’t deserve to play,’ said Niederreiter, who has been a breath of fresh air on and off the ice since being acquired in a trade with Nashville.
“We just simply weren’t good enough. We weren’t engaged. We weren’t doing the job we were supposed to do. We definitely deserved that. I mean, he definitely made that message pretty clear. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to show up, especially this time of year and yeah. It was definitely unacceptable.”
It’s worth noting both Scheifele (who is an alternate captain) and Connor declined post-game interview requests.
Bowness said he felt he had no choice but to make a drastic move.
“Well, it’s two-fold. I mean, first of all the other three lines were going really well. And they were creating momentum. So you try to get them out there as much as you can,” said the veteran bench boss.
“And some nights, it’s just not going your way. No, you don’t like to do that. But again, the other three lines were going so good and creating. So really happy with that. Did a couple guys have a tough night? Yeah, that’s going to happen.”
2. The benching was over at the start of the third period, albeit with a twist.
Bowness broke up arguably his best line — the checking trio of Adam Lowry, Morgan Barron and Mason Appleton — in an attempt to get his scoring stars going. Appleton was put with Scheifele and Connor, while Niederreiter teamed up with Lowry and Barron.
“Just change it up. We tried to give it a different look,” Bowness explained. “It’s not going, you gotta try to give it a different look. And it worked.”
3. Nikolaj Ehlers cut the deficit to 3-2 at 4:27 of the third, converting a clever feed from Blake Wheeler, and the Jets were very much in it.
After Jack Drury restored the two-goal advantage at 9:34, Niederreiter finished off a nice sequence with Barron and Lowry and scored at 15:38 to send it down to the wire.
Niederreiter how has points in seven straight games with the Jets, with four goals and three in that time.
“We definitely found that we stuck with it, we found a way to keep being in the game, and obviously I was fortunate enough to be there in the right spot, right time, to give us a chance to get back in the game,” he said.
Unfortunately for Winnipeg, they couldn’t muster much in the final few minutes — Wheeler took an ill-timed offensive zone hooking penalty with just under three to play — and Kotkaniemi sealed it with an empty-netter at 19:56.
“We played a pretty good game today,” said Ehlers. “We worked hard. Chipped them out. There were some things we weren’t happy with. We did turn over a lot of pucks. When you score a goal and get within one, you don’t want to let another one in right away. We’ll clean that up.”
Ehlers actually had a glorious chance to tie it, but he opted to try a tough pass to teammate Vladislav Namestnikov rather than fire it from in close on Frederik Andersen, who stopped 21 of 24 shots on the night.
“I saw his stick backdoor but he couldn’t see the puck. I have to shoot,” Ehlers admitted about the play.
4. Much will be made about the decision to sit Hellebuyck, who was fantastic in back-to-back games in Florida (83 shots, 77 saves).
With the NHL’s best team, the Boston Bruins, at Canada Life Centre on Thursday, and another back-to-back on the road looming this weekend (in Nashville Saturday afternoon and in St. Louis on Sunday night), Bowness felt this was the best time to give his workhorse a breather.
Some will say it backfired, as Rittich wasn’t particularly sharp. To be fair, some blunders from teammates didn’t help either, particularly a horrible pass attempt from Kevin Stenlund to Neal Pionk which led to the Drury game-winning goal.
But it’s clear the Jets are still trying to juggle the big picture here — keeping Hellebuyck as sharp as possible — along with the need to string together victories and points.
Different results in Florida and Tampa likely would have altered the approach, and the same might be true for the status of Morrissey and Dubois.
“I would say if it was a playoff game, he probably would have played,” Bowness said of Morrissey. “But we certainly don’t want a setback at this point, with the injury.”
5. Hellebuyck, Morrissey and Dubois will likely all be in the lineup against the Bruins, which should bring about a nice boost. And the Jets will no doubt try to focus on some positives rather than let this loss linger.
“The trip, overall, was definitely a good trip. But we could have made it a great trip tonight because they were definitely beatable,” Niederreiter said. “But overall, I feel like we’re playing some good hockey and are playing the way we should play. And like I said, my line, we’ve definitely got to show up next game.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.