The elevated hill the Sharks knew they would have to climb to make it back into playoff position just became a mountain.
Blake Wheeler scored twice, and the Jets put the Sharks away early in a 5-2 win at MTS Centre on Tuesday night in what was the most important game of the season to date for San Jose, which began a seven-game road trip.
The Sharks (34-28-8, 76 points) fell six points behind Winnipeg (35-23-12, 82 points), a team they will almost certainly have to catch in the playoff race, with just a dozen games left in the season for each.
The Jets struck early and often to take control of the game in the first period and were never in danger.
First, Brent Burns turned the puck over deep in the defensive zone, allowing Adam Lowry to gain possession. The Jets forward somehow banked the puck off of Antti Niemi’s hip from below the goal line just 70 seconds into the game to open the scoring on a play that never should have happened.
The home team increased its lead to 2-0 on the power play. Justin Braun’s slashing minor negated a San Jose advantage, and shortly after Lowry’s holding penalty expired, Mark Scheifele found the top corner midway through the first.
Another power play goal, on an Andrew Ladd redirection at 13:01, chased Niemi in favor of Alex Stalock.
The Sharks regrouped to start the second and cut into the lead on a Joe Pavelski goal, when he found the rebound on a Joe Thornton shot.
San Jose applied steady pressure after the goal, but Winnipeg’s fourth goal was a dagger. Wheeler found some loose change in front after a Drew Stafford wraparound try at 7:05, and the Jets dominated possession for the next several minutes after getting pinned in by San Jose before the goal.
Winnipeg put it away with Wheeler’s second at 9:12 of the third, when he batted in a centering pass from Stafford that deflected into the air off of the stick of Braun.
Pavelski’s deflection with 2:25 left in regulation capped the scoring. The Sharks’ leading scorer broke out of a slump in which he had just one goal in his previous 12 games.
The Sharks won the first two games of the season series against Winnipeg, finishing 2-1-0 on the season, including their home opener on Oct. 11. San Jose fell to 13-3-4 all-time against the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise.
The Sharks finished 0-for-3 on the power play, after coming in with eight power play goals in their last eight games.
Winnipeg converted two of three of its power play chances. It was the second straight game the Sharks have allowed multiple power play goals against, and third time in the last eight games. They are just 17-for-25 over that span (68 percent).
Niemi allowed three goals on eight shots to suffer his first career regulation loss at MTS Centre (2-1-1).
Stalock was playing for the first time since shutting out the Canadiens on March 2. He finished with 12 saves on 14 Winnipeg shots.
Ondrej Pavalec, who has been outplayed by Michael Hutchinson for most of the season, improved to 15-14-7 on the year with 36 saves. It was his second win in six career decisions vs. San Jose (2-4-0).
After making a key error in the third period of a 6-2 loss to the Blackhawks on Saturday, falling over on the game-winning goal, rookie defenseman Mirco Mueller was pulled from the lineup. Scott Hannan returned from a two-game absence as a presumable healthy scratch.
Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, a game-time decision after skating in the morning, did not play. The Jets were also without second-leading scorer Bryan Little, among others.
The Sharks will continue a tour of Canada, visiting the plummeting Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Thursday. San Jose claimed a 3-1 win over Toronto at home on Jan. 15.
The six remaining games on the road trip are all against Eastern Conference teams, including Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.