LAS VEGAS – Scott Arniel didn’t mince words and you can understand why.
As happy as the Winnipeg Jets associate coach was that his team had just pulled off an escape-artist-esque effort in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Arniel knew his team was doing something that is simply not sustainable – even with the sheer and utter heroics of goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
On a night where the Jets probably deserved to be blown out, they snuck out with a single point to give them five of a possible six on this three-game road trip.
But where the tidy 4-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues represented the template of what the Jets need to look like to be a team that remains in the thick of things in the Central Division, the rest of the week featured a lot of slipping back into old habits and not supplying anything close to a 60-minute effort.
As important it is to find a way to eke out points when a team didn’t have its best, the Jets didn’t meet the standard they’ve been trying to set for themselves when it comes to puck management or defensive structure.
“Our goaltender had to stand on his head there for most of the evening. So, we’ll take the points and get out of here,” said Arniel, whose team sits at 5-3-1 and is tied for top spot in the Central. “We’ve got some lessons to learn and continue to have to get out of some habits that we keep throwing at ourselves. Just the way we get started in games isn’t good enough in this league, and the league’s only going to get tougher as we move forward. It’s not going to be these coming-back games like we’re trying to do every night. So, just as a group, we’re got to be a lot better.
“Pretty much after the second period, it couldn’t get any uglier. We were better in the third, it wasn’t picturesque. Then in overtime, we had lots of chances as well and had the puck for most of it. We had one breakdown and obviously it was in the net.”
That breakdown saw the Jets give Jack Eichel a little too much time and space and he drove hard to the net and stuffed home the puck on his forehand with six seconds left in overtime to help the Golden Knights improve to 8-2.
Slow starts were an issue in each of the past three outings and while it’s a little early to be drawing sweeping conclusions, being badly outshot and outchanced and occasionally being outworked is basically a recipe for disaster.
“We want to play a more complicated game than what we need to,” said Arniel. “You’re on the road, you’re in a hostile environment, that’s the time you try to keep it as simple as possible.
“We’ve been stressing it for nine games. It’s not like teams are overpowering us because they’re out-skilling us or outworking us, it’s more we’re turning pucks over and allowing the opposition to come at us, come at us, come at us.”
So what do the Jets need to do to correct this issue, given how much time they’ve spent talking about it?
“It’s attention to detail. We talk about it, we’ve done our homework on it, we’re prepared for it, it’s just a matter of execution,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “(Hellebuyck) played fantastic and I think, credit to us for finding a way to get it to overtime. We know we can be a lot better than that.
“Clearly we didn’t deserve to win that one. We found different ways to win the first two. (But) we have to be way better.”
The recognition from the Jets that they’re not doing a good enough job of cleaning up the areas that were a priority going into the season is something that represents growth from this group.
They know that they can’t simply rely on Hellebuyck to do the majority of the heavy lifting, even if he’s clearly been the team’s most valuable player through nine games and is covering up many of the mistakes that need to be sorted out.
“I understand why he won the Vezina. He’s an outstanding goaltender,” said Arniel. “Just his instincts and the ability to read plays is second to none. We’re in October here, we don’t want to put him through this at this time of the year. We’re hoping that we can build our defensive game and our all around game, so that he doesn’t have to face so much rubber. At the end of the day, he is what he is. He’s an elite goaltender in this league.”
Hellebuyck was under siege during the first two periods and did everything in his power to keep his team in the game.
He did that – and then some, turning aside shot after shot to ensure it was much tighter than it should have been.
His best save was a desperation special where Hellebuyck stuck out the paddle of his goal stick to absolutely rob Golden Knights defenceman Nicolas Hague, who thought he was going to put the puck into what was essentially an empty net.
“That wasn’t luck at all,” Hellebuyck said with a smile. “Sometimes it’s good to have luck. You have to have luck to be good in this league.”
Every guy benefits from a stroke of luck at times, but Hellebuyck has been dialled in through seven starts and has been showcasing his Vezina form with great frequency, serving notice that he deserves to be in the conversation with the best goalies in the NHL.
With the Jets set to hit the 10-game mark on Thursday when they host the Montreal Canadiens, it’s clear that there are some habits that are proving to be difficult to overcome.
While it’s too early to say it’s a disturbing trend, it’s also a pattern that’s been evident over the course of the past several seasons, it’s something the Jets absolutely have to be cognizant of before it officially becomes a problem.
On the flip side, despite forward Nikolaj Ehlers having missed seven consecutive games with a lower-body injury (and not skating at all during this road trip), sniper Kyle Connor still stuck on one empty net goal so far and with head coach Rick Bowness having been behind the bench for one of the nine contests, the Jets are still tied with the Dallas Stars for first place in the Central Division.
Teams don’t put up banners for finding a way to battle through some early adversity, but putting points in the piggy back are just as important in October as they are in April.
“Right now I know how important every single point is,” said Hellebuyck. “Halfway through the season we’re going to be looking at numbers and crunching to see who we need to beat and stuff like that. It’s important to get it now.”
With that in mind, Arniel challenged his top players to find a way to play more of a direct game, like the one the units centred by Adam Lowry (who scored the lone Jets goal) and David Gustafsson delivered on Sunday.
“Both the Lowry line and Gustafsson (line), they gave us zone time and kept simple, pushed pucks forward and got in after the puck and they just ate up some time for us,” said Arniel. “Again, our top players have to realize there’s a certain way (to play) in tough situations like this that we’ve all kind of got to look alike. Our lines have to look alike. Our bottom six did a good job of playing that way.”
Once the top lines follow that formula with a bit more regularity, it will be much easier to get a handle on what kind of team the Jets actually have this season.