LOS ANGELES — There is little doubt the match-up fit the bill as a prototypical trap game.
After going toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL and finding a way to win in overtime for a third consecutive game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, you could understand how a meeting with the last-place Los Angeles Kings wasn’t going to get the juices flowing for the Winnipeg Jets.
Going into the contest, there was plenty of discussion about not taking the Kings lightly and identifying the ample weapons they had at their disposal — even while dealing with a plethora of injuries to important players.
The Jets even had some experience dealing with this issue recently, gearing up for a pair of games against the Chicago Blackhawks last week.
On this night, the Jets were not as sharp offensively or clicking on all cylinders, while the Kings top guns were a major factor and a complementary piece named Austin Wagner chipped in a pair of goals in a 4-1 Kings triumph.
Couple that with 27 saves from Jonathan Quick — who was aided by two critical saves in the crease by defenceman Drew Doughty — and goals from Alex Iafallo and Nate Thompson, the Kings snapped the Jets five-game winning streak at Staples Center on Tuesday.
“You have to be ready to play an NHL game, they’re not just going to gift you the two points,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “They have a few different weapons that can hurt you.”
Those pre-game thoughts from Lowry proved to be prophetic.
Let’s be perfectly clear, this wasn’t an effort issue for the Jets and the Kings looked nothing like a team that entered the contest in last place in the NHL.
Doughty’s first save came against Jets forward Mason Appleton, who appeared to be on the verge of scoring his first NHL goal in his 10th NHL game.
“It was a bouncing puck, so I really didn’t get much on it,” said Appleton. “I don’t know, I guess he made a good play on it. But if I get all of that puck, there’s no question that’s in the back of the net. It’s just a tough bounce.”
Doughty also came to the rescue moments after Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers rattled a backdoor chance of the post, using his chest to stop Mark Scheifele from a sharp-angle.
“It was a huge chance, a great pass from (Scheifele) and it’s one of those that you want to bury. Then it’s a 2-2 game. It’s tough,” said Ehlers. “Their goalie made some saves, some pretty big ones. It was one of those games where you work hard — and I think we did that for a full 60 minutes — but you don’t get rewarded. We played against a good team tonight and we deserved a little more than that, but that’s how it goes.”
Wagner’s first goal opened the scoring and was a bit of a strange one, as he redirected a point shot from Daniel Brickley.
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck made the save, but the puck caromed high into the air, landed behind him and rolled over the goal line.
“It’s weird. I get the whole thing and then it lands, from what I saw, in the middle of the crease and takes a weird spin backwards. That’s crazy,” said Hellebuyck, who finished with 27 saves. “I’m kind of sick of that happening. But I guess I need to put myself in a better position.”
The Jets top-ranked power play was held off the board, going zero-for-three, though one of the man-advantages lasted only 16 seconds.
With the Kings taking a bench minor for having too many men on the ice with 6:34 left in the third period, the Jets were unable to convert, snapping a streak of five consecutive games with a power-play marker (the Jets went nine-for-19 during that span).
“What happens is when you’re running at whatever we are in the last 10 (games), at 40 or 45%, you start to think that’s the way it looks every night. And it doesn’t,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “At 30%, that’s a pretty strong number. Again, they got in front of a bunch (of shots), real good sticks, knocked a lot of our passes down.
“Oh, I thought (the Kings) played a hell of a game. I thought that had everything to do with it. There wasn’t a whole lot of easy ice, we had 18 shots blocked and they worked hard to get in front of those pucks. So they played a real strong game. It was tight, not a lot of easy offence to be had for either team.”
The Jets, who now are 22-10-2 on the season, continue a three-game road trip on Thursday against the San Jose Sharks, who are riding a five-game winning streak of their own after a 4-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
Five things we learned
Ken Wiebe’s takeaways from the Jets loss to the Kings…
Two key saves
Kings defenceman Drew Doughty has been known to make things happen at both ends of the ice, but he made two important saves during the second period, first preventing Jets forward Mason Appleton from scoring in the slot and later using his chest to stop Mark Scheifele from scoring from a sharp angle.
Speaking of saves
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick turned in an impressive performance that included an outstanding sprawling save to rob Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers on a backdoor opportunity late in the second period. Quick was at his active and athletic best and was a big reason the Jets five-game winning streak was snapped.
Jets forward Mathieu Perreault continued his recent hot streak, tipping home a shot from Bryan Little at 1:52 of the second period. Perreault had a bit of a quiet start to the season, but he’s scored in five consecutive games and is up to eight on the season.
The Kings appeared to go up 2-1 with a power play goal from defenceman Jake Muzzin at 5:46 of the second period. But the Jets used a coach’s challenge for offside after noticing the back skate of Kings forward Matt Luff was up in the air as he entered the offensive zone. The successful challenge kept it a tie game, at least momentarily.
Thanks to a rash of injuries, Winnipegger Brendan Leipsic is taking advantage of an opportunity to play on the Kings’ second power play unit. Leipsic would have had an assist on the overturned goal and he showed a couple of nice bursts in the contest.
ADOPTING A SHOOT-FIRST MENTALITY
Jets centre Mark Scheifele is going through one of the best scoring stretches of his NHL career, so it was natural for some questions to be asked about how the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft got more comfortable in a shooting role.
Scheifele entered his first training camp as more of a pass-first player and remains an impressive playmaker, but he has grown into the trigger-man on his line with Blake Wheeler — though the Jets captain doesn’t necessarily agree with the assessment.
“I don’t necessarily agree. He might have got more assists than he scored goals,” said Wheeler. “I don’t know what his junior numbers were, but I know coming in he always had a pretty wicked release. I think it’s something he’s obviously worked on over time. I think that’s a skill that comes naturally for him. He shoots the puck as well as anyone. It’s impressive how little space he needs. You can see it with our really good goal scorers, how quick they can get open. The tiny little bit of space they need to get a shot off. And that’s the difference.”
Maurice said the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs were part of the awakening for Scheifele when it comes to taking more shots.
“It’s what playoff hockey will teach you,” said Maurice. “If you go back and look at shot attempts for the first three games of the Minnesota (Wild) series in spring, he realized then that in the playoffs, you’re not going to get the chance to decide not to shoot the puck and then pass the puck, the play is gone. He just went more to shoot when I think I should right away (mentality). He made that decision and broke an NHL record. The playoffs were a really important eye opener for him that he is going to have to shoot the puck because there won’t be enough time to in the playoffs.”
And it’s not like Scheifele has lost his passing ability.
“Mark has got really good vision on the ice and he sees other options always,” said Maurice. “So, when you’re young, you defer. The other piece would be that after enough times (when) Blake Wheeler has put it on your tape, you realize that maybe we should leave the passing to Blake at times and I should shoot. Now, they’re both capable. Mark could be an elite passer, but there’s no sense in both of them doing that. One of them has got to get it off his stick.”
MOVING THEIR FEET
It’s been more than a month since the Jets have dealt with any real discipline issues.
Since a pair of undisciplined penalties taken by forward Brendan Lemieux were quite costly in a loss to the Florida Panthers in the finale of the Global Series in Finland, the Jets have been on much better behaviour.
In fact, they’ve flipped the script and been the team drawing more penalties than they’ve taken recently.
“Just being aware of our sticks,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “Early on in the year, we were getting a lot of trips and a lot of stick infractions, where you’re maybe a little careless with your stick where you don’t need to be. Now it seems like we’re skating and we’re getting above pucks and we’re not really putting ourselves in positions where you have to take penalties.
“That’s a good sign that we’re managing the puck well, we’re not turning pucks over in areas that are going to be detrimental to the team. We’re making smart plays and that’s really allowed us to stay out of the box — solid puck management. Having the puck helps a lot. You’re usually not going to be taking too many penalties when you’re on it and when you have it.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice believes the change is two-fold.
“We’re better defensively. And it’s the original positioning on that, so we’re not in behind it,” said Maurice. “We haven’t been chasing a whole lot of games. We’ve given up the first goal, or didn’t score first a fair amount this year and it hasn’t affected our wins. I think we’ve won as many when we score first as not. So our original positioning, and some of that is patience, too, we’re just a little more relaxed playing the defensive game, we’re not on the wrong side, we’re not cheating offensively, we’re scoring some goals so there’s some confidence there.
“We’ve had pretty good possession numbers, and we’ve controlled the puck fairly well. And I also think we’ve skated. Coming off that Finland trip, our legs got better and stronger and we’re skating better.”
TOUGH TIMES A SURPRISE
On most days, Lowry has a bit of a soft spot for the Kings, which is no surprise when you consider his father, longtime NHLer Dave Lowry, is an assistant coach for Los Angeles.
Lowry remained on staff after Willie Desjardins took over as head coach on an interim basis after the firing of John Stevens.
The Kings find themselves in unfamiliar territory, as they entered Tuesday’s action in last place in the NHL, a far cry from the days as a Western Conference powerhouse and two-time Stanley Cup champion since 2012.
“I don’t think anyone saw that they were going to be struggling this much,” said Adam Lowry. “They’ve missed a lot of guys at various times. Anytime your goalie (Jonathan Quick) is out for an extended period of time and you lose your backup (Jack Campbell) too, that’s going to hurt. They have a long list of injuries and that’s kind of played a factor in some of their struggles this year. But they still have a lot of good players and good pieces over there. You have to be ready to play an NHL game, they’re not just going to gift you the two points. They have a few different weapons that can hurt you.”
ON THE RADAR?
The Kings do have plenty of high-end talent, but they’re one of the teams that could impact the trade market in the coming months, should they decide to make a couple of moves for the future.
One of the players that is sure to attract some interest is Kings blue-liner Jake Muzzin, a left-handed shot, had three goals and 13 points in 34 games while averaging 21:37 of ice time going into Tuesday’s action.
Muzzin, who is signed through the 2019-20 season on a deal that carries an average annual value of $4 million, has spent a good chunk of time playing alongside Drew Doughty during the past several seasons.
He’s defensively reliable and would bring plenty of playoff experience, as he has 50 games on his resume to go along with one championship ring, from 2014.
Tuesday marked the seventh consecutive game the Jets dressed their top-6 on the blue line and Maurice has been happy with the way the group has been playing.
Interestingly enough, Maurice believes the rash of injuries sustained earlier this month actually provided a boost to several players on the back end.
“It’s been a nice luxury,” said Maurice, who is always hesitant to answer questions about the health of his club, for fear of injuries occurring. “Really important, but the bigger story is getting some big minutes pushed on guys when we had the three or four defencemen out of our lineup. Their game elevated and when the players got healthy, their game stayed. It didn’t fall off.
“It improved our individual defencemen’s play during those injuries and now that they’re back, they’re playing pretty strong.”
The Jets are happy with the depth on the blue line, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they decided to add a defencemen, especially one with experience.
Although the arrival of the NHL trade deadline is still more than two months away, it’s never too early to start speculating who could be on the Jets’ radar.
As it pertains to Muzzin, his contract for next season at $4 million, could be viewed as both a blessing and/or a curse — depending on how you look at it.
On one hand, the uncertainty surrounding Jacob Trouba (pending restricted free agent one season away from unrestricted free agency) and Tyler Myers (pending unrestricted free agent) means the Jets could be interested in adding a D-man with a bit of term to guard against a possible departure.
On the other hand, if a long-term deal can be reached with Trouba or Myers, the $4 million cap hit for Muzzin would be a challenge to fit under the salary-cap ceiling with new deals coming for several prominent restricted free agents.
THE LOOK AHEAD
Although everything is subject to review, Maurice said prior to the game that the tentative plan was to get a start for backup Laurent Brossoit before the Christmas break.
Maurice wasn’t ready to suggest which game, but going back with Hellebuyck on Thursday against the Sharks and having Brossoit play against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday makes a great deal of sense.
That would allow Hellebuyck to get some additional time to recharge before getting back in the net on Dec. 27 against the Calgary Flames, while Brossoit would be making his third start in the past two weeks.
Brossoit is up to nine games (eight starts) this season and the tentative plan is to get him somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 starts and the numbers so far mean that remains a possibility.
Hellebuyck made his 26 start of the season on Tuesday and hasn’t been overworked of late, though he’s gearing up for a busy stretch coming out of the break.
“We’re back to a number (of starts, games) that we’re comfortable with,” said Maurice.