ST. PAUL — The clock was ticking, long after the final buzzer had sounded, and it was abundantly clear some additional words needed to be spoken.
By the time the Winnipeg Jets had emerged from a rare closed-door meeting, there was only one player who came out to address the media.
A total of 23 minutes had gone by after the Jets had been blown out 5-1 by the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center and the doors to the dressing room were still not open.
The carts assembled to take the equipment bags to the airport were empty, as a summit was taking place inside.
When the meeting finally came to an end, captain Blake Wheeler emerged from the room, made his way to the front of the backdrop — a space normally reserved for the head coach — and shared some of his thoughts.
Wheeler wasn’t about to reveal the sacred contents of the internal discussion, though he conceded there were some issues that needed to be addressed.
“We’ve run into some pretty good competition here down the stretch. We want to be playing our best hockey this time of year, and we’re not quite there yet,” said Wheeler. “So when it comes down to that, you want to get a team on the same page, you want to get every guy pulling on the rope in the same direction. Sometimes the best therapy for that is having a conversation about it.”
You can be sure there was an airing of grievances, as players likely cleared the air after the Jets dropped their fifth game in the past seven — which came on the heels of what appeared to be a turning-of-the-corner four-game winning streak.
For a team like the Jets that views itself as one of the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference, limping into the playoffs isn’t optimal.
So while holding a closed-door meeting after Game 80 is far from commonplace, you got the sense the Jets leadership group was trying to stop the snowball before it gained too much momentum.
Did Wheeler like what he heard?
“It’s easy to say the right things,” said Wheeler. “There’s always a quality to what guys are saying. Everything that we talk about is really heartfelt. I think it’s a good step in the right direction.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice was asked what the meeting might suggest about the current state of affairs surrounding his team?
“That they needed to get together and talk,” Maurice said matter-of-factly. “Sure. It’s always a good thing, that investment. We’re not very proud of our game right now and it’s the style of game that we’re playing. So, they recognize that clearly and thought it was a good time to chat about it.
“It would be far (more) of a concern if after Game 80, you weren’t concerned.”
The Jets, who slipped to 46-30-4 on the season, continue a four-game road trip on Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche.
The latest loss, coupled by a victory by the Nashville Predators, leaves the two teams at 96 points, though the Jets currently hold the tiebreaker.
The St. Louis Blues sit just two points behind but hold a game in hand, so with two games remaining in the regular season, the Jets could still finish anywhere from first to third.
With that in mind, there’s plenty to play for, plus the Jets are also looking to get back to their identity game — a style and structure that could translate to success when the post-season begins next week.
“Regardless of what happens in the next two games, we’re going to the playoffs. We’ve been sitting on that for a little bit now,” said Wheeler. “We’ve got to get back to work, get a little bit of bounce-back in our step. Things haven’t been bouncing easy for us, nothing’s been easy for us.
“Those are all excuses. Our team needs to show a little bit of resiliency, a little bit of maturity. Come to work tomorrow, get a little bit better tomorrow. Regardless of what happens in these last two games, we’ve got to have a game we can identify when we go into the playoffs. It was a little bit topsy-turvy there at times. So, get a little bit of structure back, get a little bit of excitement and enthusiasm into our room, hopefully we can string a couple together and get some confidence.”
It wasn’t the only factor on this night, but it was a tough night for Jets goalie Eric Comrie, who got the call with the Jets playing on consecutive games.
Comrie, who is having a strong season as a workhorse with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, was the victim of a crazy bounce on the first goal of the contest.
Wild left-winger Zach Parise chopped at a loose puck and it went high in the air and rolled into the net off the back of Comrie.
After that, Comrie’s confidence seemed to be shaken and he allowed four goals on the first 14 shots on goal that he faced — including a sharp-angle shot from Victor Rask off his shoulder and a long wrister from Joel Eriksson Ek.
In what was his fifth NHL start of his career, Comrie dropped to 2-3.
Although the sample size is small, the goals-against average in those games is too high and the save percentage isn’t quite high enough.
The case for resting No. 1 guy Connor Hellebuyck was easy to understand, since he’s already appeared in 61 games and made 59 starts.
“Connor’s got enough work in, he’s got work coming ahead of him, so we need to be mindful of rest,” Maurice said before the game. “We’ve travelled a lot, played a lot of hockey, played a lot of big games, so we need him to watch one.”
The Jets didn’t want to run the risk of burning out Hellebuyck, Comrie just didn’t take advantage of this rare opportunity to play at this level.
Offensively, the Jets lone goal was a shorthanded tally from defenceman Jacob Trouba.
The Jets lost all five meetings to the Wild this season and were outscored 18-8 in the process.
The game wasn’t the only thing the Jets lost on this night as energetic winger Brandon Tanev left the contest less than five minutes in.
Tanev, who is having a career year with 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games, was slashed on the left hand by Wild centre Eric Staal.
There was no penalty called on the play.
“We’ve got people in place to make those decisions,” said Maurice, when asked for his thoughts on the slash itself. “That’s not one of mine.”
Tanev took only two shifts for a grand total of 40 seconds of ice time — including a 22-second shift that ended at 4:55 of the first period.
In addition to his production, Tanev is an important member of the Jets penalty-killing unit.
It’s that time of year when not a lot of injury information is made available, but it’s a significant blow if Tanev is lost for any length of time.
“I’ll have something for you tomorrow,” said Maurice.
SAMBERG SET FOR FROZEN FOUR
For the second time in as many seasons, Jets defence prospect Dylan Samberg will compete in the NCAA Frozen Four hockey championship with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs are the defending champions and will face the Providence College Friars in the semifinal on April 11 in Buffalo.
Samberg is enjoying a solid sophomore season with the Bulldogs and his play really picked up after suiting up for Team USA at the world junior hockey championship in B.C.
“From that tournament on, he excelled again and he did the same thing last year,” Sandelin, who also coached Team USA, said in a telephone interview. “The first half was a little bit up and down, like our whole team. But he’s played very well for us, much more consistently at a high level. He’s a big-minute guy for us.”
During the opening round match-up of the Sweet 16 last weekend, Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin figures Samberg and partner Mikey Anderson played more than 40 minutes in the overtime victory over Bowling Green.
Samberg’s developed a great deal during these past two seasons and his best is yet to come.
“He’s not as vocal as some guys, but with his play and the situations we put him in during these past two years, he’s really grown into that and deserved to be in those positions,” said Sandelin. “For me, I know that I can count on him and (Anderson). They’ve been a really good pair. Even at the world junior, they’re my guys that play against the top guys and there is that trust factor. That’s always comforting when you’re coaching.”
It’s been an exciting stretch for Samberg, who won a Minnesota State high school championship, was chosen by the Jets in the second round of the 2017 NHL draft, took home a pair of medals (bronze and silver) from the world junior hockey championship and won a Frozen Four.
“He’s had a lot of big-time experiences at a lot of different levels,” said Sandelin. “There’s still a learning curve and there are times when he still shows that youth, but his upside and what he brings, the positives of his game are getting better and better.
“No. 1, he’s a good defender, he’s mobile, he’s a good puck mover and he’s got a little bit of offence to his game. He can shoot it well and when he’s engaged in the physical part, with a bit of an edge. Defending hard and moving pucks when he’s at his best.”
There’s been plenty of speculation about whether Samberg is going to return to college for his junior season or if he’ll sign his entry-level deal with the Jets following the tournament.
That decision will be made soon enough, but for the time being, Samberg’s sole focus is on helping the Bulldogs try to defend their title.
BYFUGLIEN DROPS GLOVES
Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien played a team-high 24:28 in his second game back on Monday against the Chicago Blackhawks, despite taking a fighting major with 13 seconds left in regulation.
Byfuglien stood up Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula at the right point, then dropped his gloves after Caggiula retaliated by slashing his left ankle — the same ankle that kept him out of the lineup with two separate injuries.
Prior to Tuesday’s game, Maurice was asked what type of message that sends to his teammates.
“That usually says something to the other team. Keep your stick down on Dustin,” said Maurice. “It’s a safer way to play. He didn’t like the slash.”
Maurice was also asked if he gave any consideration to holding Byfuglien out of the lineup since the Jets were playing on consecutive days and he’s just back for an extended absence.
“We would be mindful of it and have checked,” said Maurice. “So if he had come off sore or hadn’t felt right or if there was any swelling we wouldn’t have put him in back to back. But he feels real good, real strong.”
FOUR THINGS WE LEARNED
The Jets finished the game with only 11 forwards after losing winger Brandon Tanev just five minutes into the contest. Tanev was slashed on the left hand by Wild centre Eric Staal and took only two shifts for 40 seconds of ice time. The Jets ruled him out of the game with an upper-body injury during the first intermission and it will be interesting to see if Tanev is available for Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche or if he’ll miss his first game of the season due to injury.
Before the disruption of the lines due to the loss of Tanev, Jets head coach Paul Maurice flip-flopped Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers. Little started the contest on the left side with Kevin Hayes and Patrik Laine, while Ehlers moved to the checking line with Adam Lowry and Tanev. The idea for Ehlers was to get him back to playing a more direct game, something Maurice did with Laine earlier this season.
Wild forward Zach Parise was hopeful he would get the green light from the medical staff to return to the lineup on Tuesday and it’s a good thing that he did. Parise made an immediate impact after returning to game action, giving the Wild an early lead and finishing with two goals to move to a team-high 28 for the season.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler chipped in an assist on the shorthanded goal from Jacob Trouba, giving him 70 assists and 90 points in 80 games. That leaves Wheeler just one point behind the career-high of 91 he had last season.