The Winnipeg Jets’ Game 4 bets didn’t pay off. Now their season could go bust

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DENVER — Rick Bowness sized up the Winnipeg Jets’ 2-1 deficit in their first-round series, calculated his options and made a calculated series of bets.

The Jets had been outshot 118-77 and outscored 17-11 over three games. They’d been pushed around at five-on-five, frustrated by the Colorado Avalanche’s work rate and dominated on special teams. With a pivotal Game 4 matchup ahead — and the opportunity to even the series — Bowness made his moves.

With Brenden Dillon hurt, Logan Stanley stepped in. The penalty kill had been outworked so Saturday morning AHL call-up Axel Jonsson-Fjallby would get his shot, too, while Nikolaj Ehlers and Nino Niederreiter traded spots on the forward lines. Through these tweaks, Bowness bet that Winnipeg — the top defensive team in the NHL this season — would find a way to play its own game, taking the play to the Avalanche instead of playing on its heels.

Instead, the Jets were utterly dominated in Game 4. They were outmatched, out-chanced and outclassed at five-on-five. The Avalanche forechecked in waves, recovering every dumped puck, shooting every chance they had and recovered so many pucks in a row by out-positioning and outbattling the Jets.

The domination was so thorough early on that Colorado had taken four shots on goal in 20 seconds or less — twice — in the first six minutes of the game.

From there, Bowness’ bets backfired. Eight minutes into the game, Stanley shoulder-checked, thinking that Alex Iafallo would give him an outlet on the left wing boards, and then spun the puck to Zach Parise to set up Artturi Lehkonen’s game-opening goal. Later on, Stanley’s breakout pass led in part to Nate Schmidt’s equalizer, but his two second-period minor penalties helped take the Jets out of the game.

The Jets killed both of Stanley’s penalties and then took two more, giving up two power-play goals — Colorado’s fifth and sixth of the series — to put the game out of reach heading into the third period. That’s when Jonsson-Fjallby, who didn’t take a shift on the penalty kill, was promoted to the second line — a desperate line shuffle that called for a superior offensive player. To put Jonsson-Fjallby — a player with 23 points in 99 NHL games — in a feature role in a must-win game was to put an exclamation mark on a bet that didn’t pan out. Cole Perfetti wouldn’t have turned the flow of play on his own but his 19 goals were missed in that moment and again during late-game power plays with Sean Monahan and Gabriel Vilardi unavailable for their shifts.

Bowness has said many times that he coaches by feel, trusting his gut, and that he’s happier to lose coaching his way than changing his approach to the game.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar made tweaks to Colorado’s forecheck — tweaks he acknowledged to The Athletic but declined to detail when asked. Colorado modified its forecheck, changing its dump-in strategy, and subsequently dominated Winnipeg on rebounds and puck recoveries. Those two first-period four-shot flurries were the direct product, helping the Avalanche set a dominant tone in a critical game.

Winnipeg needed answers for that in Game 4 — answers it didn’t get from its head coach, its power play, its penalty kill or its ability to adapt to Colorado’s relentless pressure. Instead, the Jets got modest tweaks at the edges of the roster — bets that they were good enough to come back without sweeping adaptations. Now the Jets are on the brink of elimination and players are calling out Winnipeg’s inability to adapt.

“They made adjustments,” Mark Scheifele said in the aftermath of the 5-1 loss. “We didn’t.”

Scheifele repeated that statement in his answer to a subsequent question and doubled down on his answer when asked about it by The Athletic.

“There’s clear differences in (Colorado’s) game compared to the regular season,” he said. “They’re playing fast. Their D are moving pucks. They’re moving to areas quicker than we are, and it almost seems like it’s almost like endless, over and over and over and we’re not able to get that puck stopped. We’ve got to find ways to change that. Obviously they’re a fantastic team, they’ve shown that shift in and shift out. They battle hard. They make it hard to get to their net, and we’ve got to change our game a little bit.”

This was honest expression and candid venting from the Jets’ alternate captain who had a lengthy on-ice discussion with Bowness toward the end of Saturday’s practice. Head coach and star centre stood together at centre ice, with Bowness doing most of the talking during a lengthy meeting of the minds.

“We’ve got to bring a different game come Tuesday,” Scheifele said. “We’ve got to fix some things. We’ve got to change some things up. That’s about it.”

Scheifele’s message was echoed by Niederreiter, whose second-period roughing penalty led to Colorado’s fourth goal.

“We’ve got to change our game plan. There’s certain areas that we have to change. We have to make sure we don’t feed into their game. I think that’s what’s happening.”

The Athletic asked Bowness why two veteran players were talking about Colorado’s adjustments and Winnipeg’s lack of them.

“Well, first thing is you have to stay out of the penalty box and then the penalty kill has to do their job. Second thing is we have to stop turning the puck over. Again, those things are self-inflicted,” Bowness said.

“You want adjustments? Stay out of the box. Manage the puck better and go from there.”

Bowness’ passion is evident. At this stage of his career, his love of the game and his desire to win the Stanley Cup are enormous, driving motivations. There’s a chance this series is it for him, with a club option as to whether he returns for the third year of his contract. Bowness is also an emotional person who wears his heart on his sleeve and his frustration seethed through the answer to questions about Winnipeg’s game.

“Wanna take penalties? Wanna play a three-quarter ice game? You’re playing right into their hands,” Bowness said. “Our issues are self-inflicted. You saw us play the right way for 10 minutes in the second half of the first period. You take four penalties, you turn the puck over. That’s exactly how they want to play. The issues are self-inflicted.”

It must be acknowledged that Winnipeg’s parade of penalties was a turning point in the game. The Jets killed two from Stanley but were scored on with Vladislav Namestnikov and then Niederreiter in the penalty box. The Jets were frustrated by some of the calls they received, with Namestnikov’s holding penalty being a source of confusion, but there are two things to keep in mind. For one, Winnipeg barely had the puck in Game 4, making it difficult for calls to go in the other direction. Second, Colorado’s special teams have been dominant, with the Jets’ 21st-ranked regular season penalty kill now clicking at 60 percent, the fourth-worst rate of the playoffs.

That falls upon the players’ execution and on coaching, too. Bowness has done a lot of work to improve the team’s defensive structure over his two years in Winnipeg — work worth remembering, even as his Game 4 decisions backfired as they did. In a series that’s largely been about Colorado’s ability to stay two steps ahead of the Jets on the ice, it seems clear that part of the Avalanche advantage comes from Bednar behind the bench.

Even Bowness’ most minor moves — sensible things, like sending Monahan out to take multiple defensive-zone draws for other lines, didn’t work. Monahan went one-for-five (20 percent) in the defensive zone and was one of the biggest misfires on Cale Makar’s end-to-end, highlight-reel 3-1 goal. In the third period, when Monahan was hurt after taking a butt end to the face on a power-play faceoff, Iafallo took his spot on the bumper — a job for which even Perfetti’s biggest critics must admit he is well suited. The Jets’ power play struck iron late in the game but was otherwise ineffectual, going 0-for-4, failing to take control of the game when Colorado missed an offside challenge on Schmidt’s 1-1 goal.

Dig into the stats and you’ll see that Winnipeg’s top two pairs — Josh Morrissey with Dylan DeMelo and Dylan Samberg with Neal Pionk — finished the game with just over 50 percent of the shot attempts. It was Stanley and Schmidt who were the most severely outshot, two left-handers trying to make the best of Colorado’s suffocating pace while veteran right-hander and trade deadline pickup Colin Miller sat out once again.

The Jets aren’t playing to their strengths. This much is clear in their overwhelmed appearance even when they do have the puck in transition. They’re making a lot of disjointed plays, seemingly not used to having any time and space at all. Kyle Connor and Monahan had four shots each and Ehlers had three, but the Jets’ lack of offence is mostly a story about being unable to get into the Avalanche zone. When they’re there, which is rare, some scoring chances do emerge, but Colorado’s secondary scorers are outplaying Winnipeg’s stars and its depth while the Jets’ deployment decisions chip away at a non-existent margin for error.

In a series that started as a coin flip, the self-inflicted wounds go beyond what happens on the ice.

What of Winnipeg’s resilience, then? What of the pushback Bowness so vocally accused the Jets of lacking against Vegas when Winnipeg won Game 1 last year and then lost four straight to end the series? We’ve seen the Jets take strides this season. We’ve seen the maturation of Scheifele and the stable, calming leadership of Adam Lowry and Morrissey help stem previous losing streaks.

But Winnipeg hasn’t followed a playoff loss with any number of playoff wins since the qualification round against Calgary in 2020. The Jets have shown a tendency to get pushed out of a series instead of finding solutions as the games slip away. They’ve now burned two strong games from Hellebuyck, who was hung out to dry by poor defending and who Bowness took out of the game heading into the third period.

“Too much time in there having to make save after save,” Bowness said. “That’s not on him whatsoever. That’s on the players in front of him.”

The Jets are reeling. Now they have to win three games in a row in the face of a relentless Avalanche forecheck that’s worn them down shift by shift, game by game, and brought them to the brink of elimination. Dillon is day to day and Namestnikov could be missing, too, after leaving the game in the third period when struck in the face by a puck. He was still in a Denver hospital being evaluated after the game.

“The only thing that matters is winning Tuesday night,” Bowness said. “There’s your pushback: See how hard we go. We win Tuesday, we go from there. That’s all our focus right now is that.”

It sounds good. It’s passionate. It’s true. Bowness even said there would be roster changes for Game 5.

What Winnipeg needs the most — and what its players are saying it doesn’t have — is a game plan.

(Photo: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)

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