The stretch run was supposed to be about shining, sharpening and polishing for the Winnipeg Jets.
Because of the separation they’d created in the North Division standings, punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs was inevitable — and became a reality after a 4-0 shutout over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.
Although that victory snapped a seven-game losing streak and was supposed to allow the Jets to exhale after dealing with the late-season slide, a 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators followed on Saturday.
So where does this leave the Jets with three games to play on the regular-season docket, including games against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday and Tuesday before the finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs arrives on Friday?
That’s where the debate begins.
Since a lethargic 6-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Jets have made significant strides when it comes to their game at even strength.
The Grade A scoring chances off the rush have been reduced and the commitment to team defence has been noticeable — with only six goals allowed at 5-on-5 in the four games that followed.
That’s going to be a critical piece for the Jets when those playoffs begin against either the Oilers (most likely) or the Maple Leafs (if the Montreal Canadiens find a way to sneak into third).
“We’re going to get to a real fun, real exciting place in hockey in about a week, and whatever’s happened during the regular season just won’t matter,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
“I’ve got more hope than I maybe would have had a month ago, when you look at where we’re heading in terms of what we’re going to look like in terms of playoff hockey. I believe we’re going to be in a better position, believe it or not, right now than we were a month ago.”
At first glance, it’s natural to wonder if Maurice is viewing the situation through rose-coloured glasses or simply trying to get his team to keep the collective faith.
As Maurice pointed out after Saturday’s game, he doesn’t believe the Jets can get into a run-and-gun series with either the Oilers or Maple Leafs and find a way to win four games.
They need to pay closer attention to the finer details, improve the puck management and not feed into the transition game of their opponent.
The Jets’ focus is on doing what it takes to win low-scoring games, not getting into high-scoring affairs.
The Jets’ formula for success leans heavily on above-average to elite-level goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck, adequate defensive-zone play from the five-man unit and getting enough finish from a forward group that already has eight players in double digits in goals and two more guys knocking at the door.
But what about the sudden drought the Jets find themselves in when it comes to generating enough offence?
With only 16 goals scored during the past nine games, the offensive well has been running a bit dry.
Offence is tougher to come by at this time of the season, but the Jets need to find a way to break through — without cheating on the defensive side to do so.
The mentality shift is easy to identify but can be difficult to fully embrace, especially for a skilled team.
“You see a lot of goals scored from the net front in the playoffs, not a whole lot off the rush. We have to figure out a way to get a little more zone time, get our D a little more active in the offence, and find a way to get pucks to the net, bodies to the net, get tips and chaos in front of the net,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp.
“I don’t think our zone time is where we want it to be necessarily. That’s what drives offence in the playoffs, so we have to find a way.”
Playing a more direct game is a top priority as the Jets enter this final week of the regular season.
“That’s our focus, bearing down on those chances and making sure you make the most of it,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry.
“We know in the playoffs, it’s goals around the net. It’s not usually the prettiest goal that’s going to win you the game. Finding different ways to score, that is going to be important for us as well.”
Getting Nikolaj Ehlers back for Game 1 of the playoffs (which remains the timeline, according to Maurice) should provide an obvious boost for the offence, but he’s probably going to need some time to get up to speed after missing the final eight games of the regular season with that suspected shoulder injury.
The Jets need to get Kyle Connor back on track, as he’s gone seven games without a goal and generated only eight shots on goal during that span.
Slumps happen over the course of a season, and Connor has been a consistent goal scorer during the past four seasons, eclipsing 30 goals in three of those and 20 goals in all of them.
Top-line centre Mark Scheifele was the best Jets player on Saturday, generating a goal (to hit the 20-goal plateau for the sixth consecutive season) and an assist for his first multipoint game since April 22, while captain Blake Wheeler scored twice on Wednesday and is riding a six-game point streak.
The Jets will need offensive contributions throughout the lineup to avoid another early exit, but the reunited top line is going to need to lead the way.
With the finish line clearly in sight, the Jets must find a way to elevate their level of play before it’s too late.
“You play good defence and that generally leads to offence, so that’s got to be our mindset,” said Jets right-winger Mason Appleton.
“We’re going to do everything we can to defend hard and then, from there, turn the game into an offensive battle for us and let us score some goals. There’s not one thing you can pinpoint, but right now it’s all about wins. We’ve got to find a way to end the season on a good note and roll into the playoffs.”
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.