For about two weeks, Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel has worried that his team can’t finish games. In fact, on Tuesday morning, Noel said, "We’ve taken a few two-goal leads this year and we haven’t been able to finish. That’s what worries me most right now, our ability to finish."
He had every reason to be concerned on Tuesday night at Winnipeg’s downtown MTS Centre.
The Jets had a 4-3 lead with 10 1/2 minutes left to play and gave up three unanswered goals to the not-necessarily sparkling Ottawa Senators and lost their first game of a five-game home stand — and the first game of 13 out of 15 at home — 6-4 to the visiting Sens. That’s not a good way to start OR finish.
The Jets had one-goal leads twice — at home — and blew both of them. And after the game Nioel was not happy.
"To tell you I’m disappointed is putting it mildly," the coach said. "I don’t think we played intelligently. We found every way to lose it. We couldn’t find a way to muster it up. Some things were exposed tonight. We weren’t thinking very good, very clearly. It was a lack of intelligence.
"We started the game playing cute and simple and we’ll never win playing the way we did in that first period. Look at the goals they scored. What are you thinking? Penalties again. Same stuff.
"We can’t close out games. That’s what happens to us. You know, to play in this league you have to manage 15 minutes of your brain a night. And when we come back off the road we don’t do it. When I watched that game, I had no comfort. There was no comfortable point for me in that game. Not at any time.
"But it’s just one game, you know. But it was a game we wanted to win. Their will was good, and you can’t beat your guys up, but we just weren’t very smart. And that was a big game for us. Carolina lost, Washington lost, we really could have picked something up. We could have got within one point of Washington (for second in the Southeast). But we didn’t win. It’s only one game and we’re home the entire month of December. We have to be better than that and I think we will be.
"We still can’t lose sight of that eighth-place line. That’s what I really think we’re battling for. We have to be able to get back to .500. That’s what we need to focus on right now. We need to play well and play more consistently. We also need to stay out of the penalty box. That’s what we have to do a lot more of."
The coach, one of the most candid and insightful people in the NHL, summed it up pretty well. The Jets were exposed on Tuesday night. This is a team that doesn’t play well in its first game at home after a road trip. It’s a team that can’t hold a lead, doesn’t play responsibly enough in its own zone, has a defense that takes far too many unnecessary chances and has a group of players who take far too many dumb penalties.
On the bright side, Evander Kane scored twice, now has 12 goals on the season (he had 19 all of last year), and has scored seven goals in his last seven games. He played on a line with Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little on Tuesday and they were clearly the best line on the ice for the Jets. In a game of minuses (captain Andrew Ladd was minus-4), Kane was plus-two, Wheeler was plus-one and every one else was even or minus.
"We kind of let this one slip away," said Kane, who was, by far, the best Jet on the ice. "We came out in the third period and had some good jump, but we got a couple of penalties and that kind of changed everything. Right from the beginning of the year we didn’t want to slip too far away from that eighth-place line. That’s what we have to focus on now. We have to get to .500."
The Jets aren’t going to get to .500 if they blow leads at home with only 11 minutes to play. In fact, just when you think this team is taking a step toward a more elite status in the NHL, it takes a dumb penalty, gives up a couple of bad goals and suddenly finds itself on the short end of a hockey game it should have won.
The Jets now have 12 games at home (out of 14) in the month of December. However, a few more "dumb" losses this month and that elusive eighth-place line could become unreachable.