It’s not so much about what was said, but the fact that Nikolaj Ehlers was willing to say it out loud.
The Winnipeg Jets winger sat alone at a podium in the bowels of FLA Live Arena and as he took questions from reporters via zoom, the pregnant pauses that were required during his answers were both telling and refreshing all at once.
The Jets had just suffered a one-sided 6-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, an elite team that is challenging the Colorado Avalanche for the Presidents’ Trophy, and Ehlers was left to try and make sense of what had just happened.
Before we get into his passion-filled soliloquy, it’s important to point out that the score actually flattered the Jets, since it would have been ever more lopsided had it not been for a pair of goals that were correctly overturned — one by a coach’s challenge for goalie interference and another where a puck was batted down by a high stick and waved off immediately.
The more disconcerting issue for the Jets was that on a night where they should have had plenty of energy after a few days of rest and relaxation in Florida in order to beat the winter storm that hit in Manitoba, the Jets came out flat and were down a pair of goals from Hart Trophy candidate Jonathan Huberdeau before the game was five minutes old.
Perhaps just as frustrating for the Jets was that they refused to commit to the type of style that may have at least allowed them to compete with this powerhouse — rather than be thoroughly overmatched.
“We didn’t come out ready to play,” said Ehlers. “Our line goes out there the first two shifts and we get scored on and that’s just straight up not good enough. With the position that we’re in, you can’t do that. They’re obviously a great team and we weren’t good today. With a team like that, that is buzzing in their own building, they’re going to take advantage of a team that’s not playing the right way.”
How could a team that’s gone out of its way to say there’s still belief come out with such a lacklustre performance with so few games left in the regular season?
Not being ready out of the gate isn’t really a new development for this group, it’s been a frequent occurrence and that’s a trait you simply can’t afford to have when going head-to-head with a juggernaut like the Panthers.
“Honestly, if I had an answer to that question, we would have been able to fix that,” said Ehlers, who extended an eight-game point streak by scoring his 26th goal of the season early in the third period, only to see the Panthers restore the four-goal cushion just 46 seconds later. “I don’t have the answer. We’ve done this all season. We’ve had so many bad starts and like I said, if we knew the reason, it would have been fixed a long time ago. We’re obviously not satisfied with how this game went.”
Ehlers was just getting started and his anger with what had transpired was palpable.
When a question was asked about how the Jets get back to playing the “right way” when they face the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, Ehlers rattled off a laundry list of seemingly simple yet important laundry list of things that need to be done.
Things like chipping the puck out of the defensive zone, chipping the puck past the opposition defence and creating some havoc through pressure, skating fast, shooting the puck and working hard.
All of which are fundamental issues that are controllable.
Why has doing these things been such a challenge at time for a Jets team that is on the verge of being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention?
“Yeah. It’s a good question. That’s why we’re not in a playoff spot,” said Ehlers. “We haven’t played the right way in a lot of games and you see what that leads to. I think the easy way to put it is that we’re just not playing the type of hockey that the Jets want to play and the type of hockey that, you know, you can hold everyone accountable for. And it’s just … It sucks. It absolutely sucks.
“When it’s not going for you and you keep trying to push the nice plays and all of that. You’re just, you know, putting your team in a tough position. And it’s not just one or two guys. It’s almost everyone. … I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just we’re not playing the right way. We’ve got to find a way (against the Lightning) and that’s what we’re going to do. When we play the right way, we’re a great team. And we haven’t shown that enough.”
Ehlers hit the nail on the head and it was something that needed to be said.
This was not a guy looking for someone to blame or to publicly air out his teammates, it was a prime example of the accountability he spoke about.
Ehlers looked inward first and then took a bigger-picture approach as he made an honest assessment about where things currently stand.
This was another example of leadership being shown by one of the most important players on the roster.
Ehlers is unhappy with the Jets’ current lot in life, views it as unacceptable and he wants to do something about it.
Jets interim coach Dave Lowry brushed aside an initial query about how frustrating it must be to see how often his team has been unable to bottle up its best effort.
But when a follow-up came his way later in the discussion, he chose to share his inner thoughts on why it’s been such a struggle for the Jets at times this season.
“Well I think the biggest reason, the why behind it, is because it’s not pretty hockey,” said Lowry, whose team fell to 35-29-11 for the season. “It’s functional. It wins hockey games. And they are critical details. When you’ve been a rush team, you want to continue to try and make plays. Everyone wants to score a pretty goal. Everyone wants to be a team that makes highlight-reel plays.
“The big thing for us is that the way we have to play to be successful is we have to play direct and we have to play in straight lines. And I say it every night, when we are getting pucks to the goal line and we establish our forecheck and establish our offensive-zone play, we find ways to win hockey games.”
Lowry isn’t asking his players to eliminate the skill from its collective game, it’s more about creating an environment where they can find a game that’s repeatable and sustainable, not just reliant on scoring goals off the rush through great individual efforts.
The last word goes to Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon, who was asked to weigh in on the prospect of facing three more Eastern Conference powerhouses over the next week while watching the Dallas Stars build an eight-point cushion in the standings.
“We knew this was going to be a tough road trip, some tough buildings, tough teams to play against. But we can’t use those as excuses,” said Dillon. “Until we’re officially out of this thing, if that is the case, we’ve got to continue to battle, show our character, and I think our group is going to continue to do that.”