WINNIPEG — There was not a whole lot to glean from sifting through the wreckage of this blowout.
The mirage of an early 2-0 lead for the Winnipeg Jets was nothing but a distant memory by the time captain Blake Wheeler, forward Nikolaj Ehlers and interim head coach Dave Lowry stepped to the microphone to take questions from those on the scene in Toronto.
While the sting of this 7-3 defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs was still fresh, players and coach alike were adjusting their sights toward the future, while fully recognizing the opportunity that was lost and what it means in the grand scheme of things for a team who is quickly coming to the end of the runway that is the 82-game regular season.
“There are some areas that we continue to have to improve on,” Lowry told reporters. “You have to have a short-term memory at this time of the year.”
Such is life when a team is occupying that lonely and uncomfortable space in hockey purgatory — close enough to remain within striking distance of that second wild card spot in the Western Conference but far enough away to know that the margin for error is down to a very small number of losses.
For those of you scoring at home, with 13 games remaining, the Jets cannot afford more than one loss per week over the next month — and likely not even that many, when you consider the pace the Dallas Stars (who won in OT on Thursday to move three points up on the Jets while holding three games in hand) are playing at right now.
That’s a tall order to ask of any team, but given the up-and-down nature of the campaign, those are the circumstances the Jets — whose three-game winning streak was snapped on Thursday — are forced to deal with right now.
As often as Lowry has cited the need for a narrow focus at this time of the season, there is one element of the equation where having that short-term memory has not served the Jets well.
And for as good a job as they’ve done in going 11-5-1 during a stretch that pushed them back on the periphery of this playoff race, the inability to prevent the self-inflicted wounds from costing them is something they won’t be able to forget when it comes to the evaluation of this season.
Those puck management woes were prevalent once again, after the Jets built a lead on a sensational individual effort from Wheeler (who extended his point streak to seven games) and a wraparound from Paul Stastny.
A careless turnover on the backhand at the offensive blue line from centre Mark Scheifele helped turn the tide, even if the Jets had time to recover defensively before Mark Giordano used a double bank off Logan Stanley and Brenden Dillon to help the Maple Leafs get on the board.
Then a parade to the penalty box — including several undisciplined offensive-zone minors — proved to be costly as the top-ranked power play in the NHL struck three times with the man-advantage.
Although Ehlers managed a power-play goal of his own, the Jets also gave up a shorthanded marker to make it a 5-3 game and they never really recovered as they lost the special-teams battle 4-1.
On that shortie by Ilya Mikheyev, Scheifele appeared to have the Maple Leafs forward in his sights but couldn’t track him down on the backcheck or disrupt his shot.
After putting together two strong games while playing on a separate line from Wheeler, Scheifele’s past two efforts were not at the standard he set for himself over the course of his NHL career.
With top scorer Kyle Connor and defenceman Nate Schmidt missing the second of three games after landing in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, the timing couldn’t have been much worse for this regression for Scheifele — who did make a smart play in the D-zone that helped him earn an assist on the goal from Stastny.
Scheifele’s ability to find his offensive touch since the NHL All-Star break is one of the reasons the Jets got back into this race, but when his attention to detail on the defensive side of the puck slips, he often ends up on the uncomfortable side of the highlight reel.
This isn’t about pointing the finger at one single player, the Jets were not nearly good enough collectively.
When you face a team that’s now eclipsed 90 points, subpar efforts don’t often measure up.
Near perfection is required and the Jets got nowhere close to reaching that level.
“I thought we played good in the first and then I think we were cooked the rest of the game,” said Wheeler. “We just didn’t have anything.”
One of the reasons they didn’t have much left in the tank after enduring a busy stretch on the schedule that included seven games over the past 12 days was that they haven’t been able to lean on the fourth line enough this season.
That’s a theme that dates back to a large chunk of time during the Paul Maurice era and it’s one that must be corrected moving forward.
Yes, the Jets have a number of highly-skilled players who love to play 20-plus minutes per game and, of course, it makes sense to ride those horses on many nights. But it also comes with a cost.
Because of that reliance, on some nights several of those top guns don’t have as much to give — especially when a team reaches the 69-game mark.
Routinely playing five or six minutes isn’t enough for the fourth line and the toll that’s taken on the other forwards was on display here.
The Jets open a three-game homestand on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings and they’ll need to find a way to power through before having a three-day break. They host the Detroit Red Wings next Wednesday.
“We’re in a spot where we need to win games and besides playoffs this is the toughest time of the year,” said Ehlers. “Wins are not easy to get, so we need to just continue grinding. It doesn’t matter if we would have been out by now or like right now we’re still in it, there’s got to be some belief in winning games because we’ve got the team to do it.
“We’ve played some really good games this year and played some really bad games, and we’ve just got to get some wins. That’s the way it is.”