TAMPA, Fla. — When the Winnipeg Jets returned from a very difficult seven-game road trip, my colleague here at jetsnation.com, Matt Eichel, called it a "confidence building road swing."
He was right, too. The Jets had just gone 3-2-2 against Philadelphia, Tampa, Florida, the Islanders, New Jersey, the Rangers and Buffalo and improved from 2-5-1 to 5-7-3. As Eichel pointed out, Bryan Little finally scored his first two goals of the season, Mark Flood emerged as a legitimate NHL defenseman and Ondrej Pavelec demonstrated that he could backstop his team and play consistently well from one game to the next.
Although head coach Claude Noel wasn’t particularly happy with the way the trip finished — overtime losses to New Jersey and Buffalo and a 3-0 shutout loss to the Rangers, he did concede that three wins, two losses and a couple of extra points was not to be considered negatively. Noel believed his young charges could take a lot of good from the trip and he expected they would.
Now, however, Noel is left to wonder what’s happened to the confidence.
Suddenly the Jets have lost five straight (because of the overtime rule, it’s officially two, but the Jets know the scores of the their last five): a 3-2 overtime loss to the Devils, 3-0 to the Rangers, a 6-5 overtime loss in Buffalo, 4-2 to Florida and 2-1 to Columbus. Saturday night’s loss to the Blue Jackets was particularly disconcerting.
For one thing, Columbus is the team Noel coached on an interim basis at the end of the 2009-2010 season. It was also a team that entered the game with a record of 2-12-1 and was struggling to find a reason to continue under head coach Scott Arniel. In fact, if there was a coach in the NHL in danger of losing his job without notice, it was Arniel.
But Columbus scored the first goal and right when Noel expected a little jump from his struggling young Jets, he got nothing. Like a jockey asking his horse for just a bit more down the stretch, Noel asked his team for a little extra on Saturday night and simply didn’t get enough.
Granted goaltender Steve Mason played well for the Jackets, but even though the Jets outshot Columbus 36-27, they could manage only a shorthanded goal from defenseman Mark Stuart.
The Jets continue to be one of the most inconsistent teams in the game. They scored five against Buffalo, but in the other four games in this five-game losing streak, they managed two, zero, two and one. You aren’t going to win often in the NHL with five goals in four games.
The Jets are now 5-9-3, last in the Southeast Division and 14th in the East with three home games this week with Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia. Those three games will go a long way to determining what kind of team these Jets will be for the rest of the season. Can they beat three teams with at least eight wins each that are obviously better than they are — at home?
These will be character games at a time in the season when an inconsistent, last-place team can change the course of its campaign. If nothing else, it can get its confidence back.