The Winnipeg Jets are where many expected them to be at this point of the season; right in the thick of the battle for top spot in the Western Conference.
Credit that to a recent surge by the team that’s seen them win six of their past seven games against a string of teams below the playoff line. As the saying goes, they don’t ask how, just how many and the Jets have 40 points, just one off the lead in the Western Conference.
Searching for a full 60 minutes
Despite the Jets’ recent success the team continues to give fans reason for concern by falling asleep at points in games.
“Our start was terrible against Philly,” captain Blake Wheeler said, reflecting on a 7-1 victory over the Flyers. “Not how you approach an NHL game.“
Those lapses have become somewhat consistent throughout the season. Similarly consistent, though, has been the Jets’ ability to overcome those lapses and still produce points.
“We have a great team,” Nikolaj Ehlers said when asked how the Jets have survived those lows. “You know you can’t play 82 great games. No team in the league has ever done that or will do that. But the teams that can play bad and still get a point or two are the teams that are going to get far.”
Maybe this is a good thing for the Jets. Flawed games that don’t cost you in the standings give you a reason to work at getting better. Those haphazard lulls may even conserve energy down the stretch for when the hockey matters most.
One thing was made clear to me early on this front — this is not part of the plan. The Jets are not coasting with just enough effort to get by. One of their leaders bristled at that suggestion.
Bucky is back
You can’t address Winnipeg’s recent success without mentioning the resurgence of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The starter stumbled out of the gates this season, but has rounded into form, looking more and more like the goalie who placed second in the 2018 Vezina Trophy voting.
“I would agree with that,” Kyle Connor said. “He’s really showed strong in the last couple games here.”
Like this team, expectations were sky-high for Hellebuyck coming into the season, especially after signing a six-year, $37 million contract extension. The pressure to perform can be torqued in such a situation and Hellebuyck may have been feeling it until recently.
“I relaxed a bit. I was gripping it a little bit tight,” Hellebuyck said. “Now I’ve kind of relaxed and let things sink into place and it really helped me find my groove.”
For a team still searching to put all the facets of its game together, having Hellebuyck back on point will go a long way towards setting the Jets apart.
Bullying the bullies
It is a game plan as old as the game itself — if you can’t handle your opponent’s skill, take the game to the trenches.
You can understand why teams have tried this approach with the Jets when Winnipeg’s skill takes games over. Unfortunately for those teams that tact typically worsens the outcome.
We’ve seen that in multiple games this year, the Jets’ 7-1 drubbing of the Flyers being the latest example. Four of Winnipeg’s seven goals in that game came on the power play as the Flyers’ intimidation tactics backfired.
According to their coach the key is discipline.
“You don’t want a team coming in and saying ‘hey, just hit two or three of their small guys and we’ll be on the power play the rest of the night because they get stupid,'” Paul Maurice said after that game. “You have to handle it the right way. You don’t want to chase that stuff around. You don’t want to react to every hit. I think we handled it right.”
Part of that discipline is the ability to handle the rough stuff. If the Jets were a more fragile team, turning a cheek wouldn’t be as easy. But when you get rough with Winnipeg, you pick a fight with one of the big boys in the school yard.
“We got those guys that can play that tough game and can intimidate teams themselves,” said Connor, who was the target of a hard penalty that drew a scrum in that Flyers game. “But those same guys can also play with lots of skill and contribute and I think when that happens we just turn our game up to the next level and really take it to them. And I guess on the scoreboard is a good way to say it.”