DETROIT - The Winnipeg Jets were not supposed to win on Saturday night.
They played at home the night before, notching their fourth straight win, and they got to Detroit at three in the morning. If that wasn’t enough, the mighty Red Wings had won eight in a row at Joe Louis Arena.
So when Winnipeg’s Bryan Little managed to score in the opening minute, giving the Jets a 1-0 lead before the game was 60 seconds old for the second straight night, life could not have been better for Claude Noel’s troops. They shook off any fatigue they might have been feeling, and they punched the Red Wings right in the mouth.
If they were going to win their fifth in a row, they could not have asked for a better start.
The next 59 minutes, on the other hand, were not what the Jets wanted. Simply put, the veteran-laden Red Wings laid a spanking on the young and tired Jets, controlling the play for the rest of the contest and padding their stats in a 7-1 triumph before 20,066 fans.
They seemingly scored at will after taking that opening shot, and the Jets had no response. The Wings played their puck possession game to a T, and the Jets even ended up with a 30-29 advantage in the shot department.
So the question now is: Why? Was it fatigue? Are the Wings that good? Are the Jets not in Detroit’s league yet? Did Winnipeg make a lot of bad mistakes? It’s probably a combination of the four. Wings coach Mike Babcock said after the morning skate that his team had to take advantage of the schedule maker being mean to the Jets, so it was obviously a factor.
The Wings, meanwhile, have loads of talent and veteran savvy. They held on to the puck for most of the night, which no doubt only made the Jets more tired as they had to chase it all game long.
And no, the Jets don’t yet have the talent to run with the Red Wings quite yet. There’s no way the disparity is as big as the scoreboard indicated, but Winnipeg got a good glimpse of where it eventually wants to be. And they better hurry it up a bit, because they are going to be seeing the Wings a lot more starting next season when they’re in the same conference.
“We learned what it’s like to play against one of the best teams in the league tonight, and so far they’ve given us the best game,” Little said. “They’ve been the toughest team we played. They’re smart with the puck, and they hang on to it, and they make the easy plays. We can learn a lot from just watching them.”
Finally, the mistakes that were not there during Winnipeg’s four-game winning streak that preceded Saturday’s blowout loss reared their ugly heads. On Detroit’s second goal, the Jets got caught on a terrible line change. In addition, it was a shot Ondrej Pavelec should have stopped. On Detroit’s seventh goal early in the third, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien served up a free pizza — as Noel likes to call them — when his no-look pass attempt from his own corner ended up on the stick of Jiri Hudler, who passed it to Henrik Zetterberg, who then passed it back to Hudler, who notched his second of the game.
That was the end of Pavelec’s night, who got the hook in favour of Chris Mason.
And on Detroit’s third and fifth goals, their scorers jumped off the bench and creeped into the offensive zone unnoticed. Hudler and Valteri Filppula were the benefactors of superb passes and made no mistakes burying the pucks in the top right-hand corner.
No wonder Noel had a look on his face at the start of the third period that resembled a combination of frustration, anger and indigestion.
“There’s no excuses,” Noel said. “You can sit and paint this thing up as travel and all that stuff, but our job is to find ways to win games. That’s our job.”
Noel wasn’t planning to watch the game a second time in advance of their home game on Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. He watched a bit of film between periods on Saturday night, and he didn’t like it.
“It was awful,” he said. “And what it was was the mental breakdowns. And sometimes that’s directly related to certain things, but that’s the disappointing part, is the mental breakdowns.”
The big question now is: How will they bounce back? We’ll find out on Tuesday night.