WINNIPEG - Goalie Ondrej Pavelec perfectly summed up what the Winnipeg Jets are feeling by smashing his goal stick over the crossbar in an act of frustration over another blown lead.
After battling for the better part of two months to remain in the playoff chase, the Jets flickering hopes were dealt another crushing blow on Wednesday night as they fell 4-2 to the New York Rangers before a dejected crowd of 15,004 at MTS Centre.
The Jets looked spent and are basically running on fumes.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were a little emotionally drained,” said Jets winger Tanner Glass. “I think everyone is at this part of the season, but it’s part of the challenge of an 82-game season.”
It wasn’t so much that the Jets lost to the Rangers, who swept the four-game season series with the Jets and opened a five-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the chase for top spot in the Eastern Conference, but how they lost.
After taking a 2-0 lead on goals 56 seconds apart from Spencer Machacek and Bryan Little before the second period was five minutes old, an inability to come through on the power play — the NHL’s best on home ice this season — ultimately laid the groundwork for their undoing.
“We had the lead and we kind of let it slip,” said Little. “It seems like a couple weeks ago, when we’d have that chance, we’d finish teams off. If anything, we’d step on the gas pedal. It seems like the last couple of games, I don’t know what it is. It seems like we have a mental let up.”
The Jets were handed the first five power plays on the night and finished 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
They were also unable to convert on a 5-on-3 that lasted one minute and 43 seconds. Not being able to score on the two-man advantage has plagued the Jets for much of the season.
To make matters worse, the Jets surrendered a short-handed goal at 7:44 of the second period to Michael Del Zotto, who took a smart pass off the side of the net from captain Ryan Callahan, to narrow the deficit.
“The turning point of the game was the shorthanded goal we gave up,” said Noel, referring to the seventh shortie allowed by his club this season. “They didn’t have a lot of life up to that point, but they had a lot of life after that. It really let them back into it and they pretty much took over the game from there.”
Callahan wasn’t done there — scoring the goal that evened the score 2-2 — and before the night was over he’d shown why he’s the type of player the Jets need to target during the off-season to play in their Top-6.
Every team in the NHL would like to add a guy (or two) like Callahan, since he can skate, shoot, score (his goal was his 28th of the season), make plays (he has 25 assists), play physical (he had two hits), kill penalties and block shots (four in game).
There aren’t a lot of things Callahan can’t do well.
The Jets should have received a boost after killing off a double minor for high sticking to captain Andrew Ladd — which was somewhat controversial as it was the stick of Rangers centre Brian Boyle and not Ladd that caught Boyle in the mouth and caused him to lose a tooth — but they let down instead.
To rub salt in the wound, it was Boyle who walked out from behind the net and slipped a shot past Pavelec to give the Rangers their first lead of the game just 3:07 into the third.
A power-play marker from Derek Stepan just past the midway point of the third was all the insurance the tight-checking Rangers would need.
The Rangers won the special teams battle 3-0 and the Jets are basically left to play for pride during the final five games of the regular season.
While the Jets haven’t officially been eliminated, they’ve lost five of six and remain eight points behind the Buffalo Sabres with five games to go.
We don’t expect the Jets to fade into the sunset without putting up a fight, but if they can’t reverse their fortunes quickly, they might find themselves with a lottery pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft — which wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize. But that’s a debate for another day.