Jets fend off tough schedule, begin to reclaim playoff identity

Mathieu Perreault’s goal in the second period was enough to help the Winnipeg Jets edge the Calgary Flames.

WINNIPEG, Man. — The coach can always see the trends coming long before everyone else, so Paul Maurice wants to go back a lot further than this three-game home stand to cite the starting point for when the Winnipeg Jets began to evolve back into the Winnipeg Jets.

It seems a team that gave up five goals in a loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, beat the Boston Bruins two nights later, then rolled out this playoff-replica gem against the Calgary Flames has reacquired its identity just lately. Of course, Maurice begs to differ.

“It wasn’t just when we came home, it was before that,” Maurice said after a steady Eddie, 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames Saturday. “Right at the trade deadline, we played a pretty darn good game against Minny and we’ve kind of built from there, for me.”

When it all began is something we can sort out over a beer, later on. That it has happened is what truly matters, and over the course of three games this week we’ve watched a Jets team that more closely resembles what it will need to be three-and-a-half weeks from now, when the playoffs open here in Manitoba.

“We need the three weeks, we do,” admits Maurice. “But we just played eight playoff teams and were 5-3. I’m not even going to qualify it, with (Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey) out, because you play playoff games without key pieces out of your lineup and you’ve got to win. So, 5-3. In one loss, we got beat (5-2) by Tampa, but the San Jose and Washington losses were pretty darn well played.”

As the Jets charter south to take on lowly SoCal sisters Los Angeles and Anaheim, before a one-night stand in Vegas, it’s worth looking back at the fiendish test the schedule-maker tasked them with of late. Their past eight opponents, against which they went 5-3, looked like this: Nashville, Columbus, Tampa, Carolina, Washington, San Jose, Boston and Calgary.

That’s eight of the Top 12 teams in the NHL, and the Jets not only survived it without their best two defencemen, they won more than they lost.

“The last two games have been more playoff hockey,” said swift winger Nik Ehlers, “and the way we want to develop our game for the playoffs. We felt good, we felt comfortable. Now it’s just a matter of keeping that grind going.”

When a team goes on its first real playoff run, as Winnipeg did last season, we all sit back and watch how it handles the following season, how it deals with winning games in an atmosphere that isn’t nearly as electric as it had been in April and May.

How a goalie like Connor Hellebuyck follows up a career season; how a 19-year-old who scores 44 goals deals with being a 20-year-old in a prolonged scoring slump; how Mark Scheifele learns to be a leader when his name isn’t all over the score sheet the way it was in Round 2 versus the Nashville Predators last spring.

Well, Scheifele looks just fine, thanks. And Patrik Laine, as it turns out, is learning to do a whole lot more than sit out there on the perimeter hammering one-timers.

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With their top two defencemen out, the Jets have swum, not sank. You can thank a physical, dependable Dmitry Kulikov, an improved, steady Ben Chiarot, a shot-blocking Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, the guy the Buffalo Sabres inexplicably thought they should move elsewhere.

“A lot of good blocked shots,” said trusty depth centreman Mathieu Perreault. “(Trouba) in the third had two or three himself on (Johnny) Gaudreau, and Helly making the saves. So we were committed to defend hard and we got the results out of it, we got two points, so we’ve got to keep doing that.”

The Jets have 11 games left to play. They are three points ahead of second-place Nashville in the Central, with a game in hand. They’ll very likely get to tune up on a wild-card club in Round 1 before another meaty second-round series, like last year’s against the Preds.

This win over Calgary? It was like a bulldog — so ugly that it becomes beautiful.

No, even better than that.

“A 2-1 at home against the best team in the West,” said captain Blake Wheeler, “is a (bleepin’) beautiful win.”

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