WINNIPEG – Dave Lowry finally reached the point where he could no longer bite his tongue.
The reason for his frustration is as easy to understand as it was to identify.
This Winnipeg Jets team, the one he’s been serving as interim head coach of since Paul Maurice promptly resigned on Dec. 17, had put together another one of those sleepy first periods that have occurred far too often for a team that is supposed to be showing the urgency and desperation of a hockey club that is on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention.
At a time when running the table during the final 10 games of the regular season might not even be enough – considering the Dallas Stars hold a seven-point advantage and still hold a game in hand – the Jets literally and figuratively have almost zero margin for error.
For all of the talk about having belief and putting in the type of effort that the group can actually be proud of, the Jets went out and were thoroughly outplayed by an Ottawa Senators team that has underachieved and is clearly in next-year country.
Did we mention the Senators had played the night before in New York against the Rangers, while the Jets were well-rested and fresh?
Instead of dictating the terms and style of play or taking it to the Senators early, the Jets defensive-zone struggles were on full display and only a sharp start for Connor Hellebuyck – and a lucky bounce off the skate of defenceman Victor Mete allowed the Jets to be tied 1-1 after 20 minutes of play.
Win or lose, Lowry has gone out of his way to paint a positive picture for the Jets.
He’s spoken constantly about the need for his team to keep a narrow focus and to try and reach a certain standard in what has been a season-long search for consistency.
Lowry said recently that he doesn’t think that today’s player responds well to verbal challenges, but after the uninspired play in the opening period he took the opportunity to get a few things off his chest.
It’s not a well that Lowry plans to go too often, but in this case, it seems to have had the desired effect.
“We got yelled at after the first, so it kinda woke everyone up. We’ve needed that for a while, so it was good to have,” said Jets veteran forward Paul Stastny, who scored his 19th goal of the season in what turned out to be a 4-3 victory over the Senators that helped the Jets improve to 34-28-11 on the season. “In today’s age, not as many coaches yell. It might offend some kids. But sometimes it’s needed. Sometimes it’s needed. Sometimes you need a different voice. Whether it’s one of the guys inside the locker room or one of the coaches, everyone kind of knew it was coming. And it was good.”
That Stastny was the guy delivering this latest batch of truth serum comes as no surprise whatsoever.
Not only does his voice carry weight inside the Jets dressing room, but his perspective is also what allows his words to have meaning.
It’s why Stastny has become the conscience of the Jets, an unofficial job title previously held by Bryan Little before he suffered his career-ending injury in November of 2020.
Stastny is one of the players who are comfortable enough to share the Jets deficiencies and he does so without directly pointing fingers or looking for a scapegoat.
Through his knowledge of the game and both his curiosity and drive to find solutions, Stastny often finds himself at a podium speaking without a filter and his willingness to share his unvarnished truth is appreciated.
The Jets have pressing issues that need to be addressed (especially when it comes to team defence) and it’s hard to imagine them moving past them and once again becoming a contender until they become more committed to that cause.
Although Lowry wanted no part of the credit Stastny was handing out, he was a bit more revealing when it came to the message he delivered prior to the Jets coming out for the second period.
“I didn’t like our first period. I didn’t like our puck management, I didn’t like the pace we were playing, I didn’t like the urgency in our game,” Lowry said rather matter-of-factly. “But you know, to their credit, we had an answer in the second period, we came out and we did things in the second that we wanted to do at the start of the game.”
Why the Jets needed a motivational speech to get them going is another story altogether, but they did manage to get things turned around – even if they had to lean on Hellebuyck late in the game after the Senators had pulled the goalie in favour of an extra attacker.
At least for the time being, the Jets kept their dim playoff hopes alive as they prepare to face the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night.
Already without captain Blake Wheeler, who is out with an upper-body injury but is on the trip as he works on his treatment, the Jets were dealt another significant blow to their forward group as centre Mark Scheifele left the game in the first period with a suspected shoulder injury after he was drilled into the boards by Senators forward Parker Kelly.
Scheifele, who had an assist to move to 70 points on the season in 67 games, immediately grabbed his left shoulder and hunched over in pain as he made his way off the ice and eventually down the tunnel.
Although an update on the severity of the injury isn’t expected until Wednesday, it’s possible that Scheifele could be on the shelf for the remainder of the season.
In the short term, Stastny slides from the wing to centre, where he’s spent the bulk of his NHL career.
But with Scheifele unavailable for the foreseeable future, the Jets are going to need more from the other offensive leaders, like Nikolaj Ehlers (who extended his point streak to six games by recording a goal and two assists), Kyle Connor (who scored his team-leading 42nd goal) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (who snapped an eight-game goal-scoring drought by delivering his 26th of the season and 100th of his NHL career).
The importance of Ehlers has been on full display since he returned to the Jets lineup after missing 19 games with a knee injury after the knee-on-knee collision that resulted in a two-game suspension for Washington Capitals blue-liner Dmitry Orlov.
Ehlers has recorded 16 shots on goal during the past two games and is up to 25 goals and 48 points in 53 games this season.
But it’s his ability to impact the game with his breathtaking speed, exquisite zone entries and precision passing that has augmented the shooter’s mentality that has Ehlers adopted, leaving him on the precipice of setting a new season-high for goals (he scored 29 in 2017-18).
“(Ehlers) is a key player for us offensively. He’s one of the drivers and when you don’t have him in your lineup, you miss him,” said Lowry. “When you have him in your lineup, Nikky is dialled in and when Nikky is playing his game, you notice him. And tonight, he was able to get himself into the game. He created some offence and he used his feet to make plays, to beat guys and it allowed his skill to take over.”