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Frustrated Jets have big, but not insurmountable hill to climb – Toronto Sun

Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler (26), center Andrew Copp (9) and left wing Kyle Connor (81) head for the locker room after their 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden in Boston on Jan. 22, 2022.
Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler (26), center Andrew Copp (9) and left wing Kyle Connor (81) head for the locker room after their 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden in Boston on Jan. 22, 2022. Photo by Winslow Townson /USA TODAY Sports

It coursed through his downtrodden body and showed in his posture, his movements and poured out in his words as he scoured for answers.

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Even through the laptop screen that beamed the post-game availability of Pierre-Luc Dubois over Zoom on Saturday, his frustration was palpable.

“It’s a disappointing loss, it’s three in a row on this trip and that schedule is going to get harder and harder,” Dubois said after Winnipeg’s 3-2 defeat to the Boston Bruins.

Twenty-two hours later, the Jets met Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of four straight coming into the game, and five straight when Crosby scored the only goal in the shootout to put arguably Winnipeg’s best effort of the season on ice in another 3-2 loss.

This time, it was Connor Hellebuyck who sat behind the same mic, in the same seat and in front of the same backdrop.

His exasperation was just as apparent.

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“We need to start stacking up some wins, and I know we’ve got games in hand, but you run out of those quickly,” Hellebuyck said.

Hellebuyck’s effort was no different than his team’s. It was his best, given the set of circumstances he had to work with, and his 36 stops — many miraculous — provided the evidence you didn’t need to read to believe.

But even he has to be getting a little tired. He’s started 11 straight now, and 25 of Winnipeg’s past 27. He’s pulled this team through kicking and screaming before, but you can’t play him 75 games and expect him to be at his peak.

“I can only speak for myself and I know the coaches are doing everything they can to get us playing the right way and getting us buying in and getting this team game going,” Hellebuyck said. “I know everyone wants it in the locker room but for myself, I’m feeling the pressure.”

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A season-defining four-game road trip that produced just two out of a possible eight points did little to alleviate the stress.

The reality as it stands at the moment is the Jets are likely out of any race in the Central Division, They’re 12 points behind third-place St. Louis with two games in hand, and 14 points back with five games in hand on second-place Nashville.

The silver lining for, at least as of Sunday, is that they’re still very much in the wild-card race. They remain where they were when the road trip began — three points adrift of the San Jose Sharks, who are situated in that second and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

And the Jets still have more than half a seasons’ worth of games to play — 44, in fact.

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So what’s the worry?

“We’re running out of time and running out of games because… right around now is the time teams keep on winning,” Hellebuyck said. “Good teams start pulling away and if you’re not with that mix, you’re going to hang yourself out quite fast.

“The time is now.”

A bevy of remaining games can act as a mirage, and the queue that’s forming for potentially a single spot will have a line of six, seven or even eight teams depending on things shake out and how games-in-hand play out over the remainder of the season.

The Minnesota Wild, who own the first wild-card spot with 51 points, are nine points ahead of Calgary and Dallas on 42 points. The Jets have 41 at the moment, followed by Edmonton and Vancouver with 40. Chicago is only three points back with 37.

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Someone is going to falter, and another is going to grab the bull by the horns and make a summit push.

Hellebuyck and Dubois have sounded the alarm.

“We have a lot of talent,” Dubois said. “I think if we can just get on the same page as everything — our breakouts, regroups, forechecks, neutral zone, in-zone… you look at the top teams, it’s not that they have that much talent more than everyone else, it just looks like everyone out there is on the same page. It just looks like there’s a flow to their game. They’re fast.”

The Jets played a much more complete game on Sunday.

Their penalty kill is ninth in the NHL since Dave Lowry took over as interim head coach, and was 4-for-4 against the Pens. Their power play is just shy of 25%, and while it has misfired at times in critical moments, it has produced a goal in eight of their past 10 games, including Kyle Connor’s 22nd that put the Jets up 2-0.

But they need more than just special teams, which can be fleeting, to be better.

Their 15 goals 5-on-5 in their past 10 games is the fourth-fewest in the league since Lowry took over, and their 23 against is only good for 20th.

The takeaway?

This is likely who the Jets are this season — a bubble team that will be scratching and clawing all the way to April 29.

sbilleck@postmedia.com

Twitter: @scottbilleck

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