Claude Noel refused to blame his goaltender or the fact his team doesn’t play very well on the road. Instead, the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets simply said his defense was shaky and his team "didn’t check very well."
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it.
Wednesday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Lars Eller (that’s right, Lars Eller) scored four goals including one on a penalty shot and dished out an assist as the Montreal Canadiens scored four times in the third period and whipped Noel’s Jets 7-3. Eller had four goals going in and he doubled that output against the Jets. Ouch.
As far as Noel was concerned, there was no sense pointing fingers at anyone. He was just disappointed that his team played so poorly.
"I don’t think our goaltender was that bad," said Noel, even though he pulled Ondrej Pavelec after the Canadiens made it 6-2. "You can say the other team got some lucky bounces. I just didn’t think we played very well. We were OK in the first period, but not very good in the second and then we just didn’t check very well in the third. I don’t know what it is. I know our road record isn’t very good (5-9-4), but I think we showed in Colorado that we can play pretty well on the road.
"I was just disappointed. We got above the (playoff) line in December and now we’ve fallen behind it again. We played a hungry team tonight and we’re going to play another hungry one tomorrow. I’m glad we get to go right back out there and play again, but I also hope we play better."
Noel has been wonderfully candid all season and last night, it was no different. In his post-game scrum, broadcast live on TSN Radio 1290 in Winnipeg, he opened up, sounding more like a father disappointed with his son’s report card than an angry hockey coach wondering how his team could win three straight at the end of December and then lay such a huge egg in the first game in January.
"I think we’re better than that, you know," he said. "I think we’ve proven that. I just find it disappointing that we make so many mistakes in our own end and our goaltender has to pay for it. Some of the guys were in this one and some of the guys were not. As a result, I don’t think it was fun for anybody."
Starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was pulled seven minutes into the third period after allowing six goals on 24 shots. Chris Mason came in and stopped six of seven.
Tim Stapleton, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd scored for the Jets who trailed just 3-2 after two periods.
However, with the loss, Winnipeg fell to 19-15-5, now in ninth place in the East, one point behind eighth place New Jersey and Washington. The Jets have the identical record of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Thursday night the Jets will play the Leafs at Air Canada Centre. It’s the second game of a four game road trip that will take the Jets to Buffalo on Saturday and Boston next Tuesday.
It won’t be easy, but it will be extremely important. Even though the Jets are still four games above .500, they are not in the Top 8 in the East. A loss to Toronto would leave them in 10th, with a growing number of teams to climb over to get back into a playoff spot.
The real concern for Noel, however, is this: Can his Jets play well enough on the road to, at least, keep eighth place within their sights? Last night, a defensive alignment that included veteran Randy Jones (back from injury), but left the improving Mark Flood in the press box, was not as comfortable nor as responsible, it seemed, as the one that had Flood in the lineup for the previous three games.
Fact is, the Jets still don’t score enough and when the defense falls into a lapse — which it did in the third period Wednesday night — this team can get kicked. And it doesn’t help that Pavelec, a goalie who is almost unbeatable at home, has given up a load of goals in Philly (8), Detroit (6) and now Montreal (6) — and was pulled in each game.
Thursday night’s game in Toronto is huge, inasmuch as coming to terms with life on the road is the most important thing on the Jets plate right now. If this team doesn’t learn to win on the road, the next month and a half will be painful.
Note: Tomorrow, we’ll look at the potential housecleaning in Anaheim and the chances of Teemu Selanne making a triumphant return to Winnipeg.