Sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference as the leaders of the Southeast division, the Winnipeg Jets will look to continue their fine play in the month of March when they face the Washington Capitals tonight at the MTS Centre.
With a record of 6-3-1 in 10 March games, the Jets have been able to win on a more consistent basis than the other teams in the Southeast. It sounds like a simple formula, but with the way the other four teams in the division have struggled, it looks like it is the perfect recipe for success. Their motto might even become “You don’t have to be great, just be good.”
Despite the perceived notion that the Jets are where they are simply because they play in the worst division in the league, the club has been playing the type of hockey worthy of the playoffs. With recent wins over playoff contending teams like Toronto (twice), the New York Rangers, and most recently the Boston Bruins, the club has earned their current placing in the East and have begun to make believers out of all those who doubted them coming into the season, and those who have continued to doubt them during the season.
So how did these Jets do it? Well, there are of course a large number of reasons, but these have been the most vital to their recent string of success in this sportswriter’s eyes:
Sticking With Speed
If you have watched the team enough, you may have noticed that they aren’t exactly the kind of team who dominate with puck possession in the attacking zone. Their strength isn’t getting pucks in deep and then working the cycle game, and it certainly isn’t their ability to whip the puck around the offensive zone with quick tape-to-tape passes.
What they do possess is some quality top-end speed on the outside which they have continued to trust in despite some lulls at different points of the season.
While it may often be frusturating to see someone like Evander Kane seemingly try the same play time and time again at the expense of added time in the opposing end, it is what he does best. Going back to the well that is ‘take it wide and shoot’ might cause fans to pull their hair out but it is his best asset. When you have cheetahs, you let them do what they do best which is to run, and for the likes of Kane and Blake Wheeler, the speed game is what they do best and has paid off more often than not this year.
And hey, it has even rubbed off on captain Andrew Ladd who seems to be skating the best he ever has in his career.
Through the first two months of the season of the season, the Jets were getting very little production from a slew of veteran players that have since elevated their game. And when I say very little production I am being kind, because in reality their production was close to none, zero, zilch. Forwards such as Nik Antropov, Oli Jokinen, Kyle Wellwood, and the injured Antti Miettinen all struggled to provide secondary scoring and were unable to accomplish much else besides circling the wagons in an effort not to get scored on.
And that is where their veteran experience has come into play.
When younger players who start the year hot experience some droughts in the middle of the season, they tend to hit the panic button and end up making things even more difficult on themselves. In the case of the aforementioned players, their experience of enduring all the ups and downs of many NHL seasons has allowed them to remain even keel to the point where they have now settled in and have found a level of confidence and comfortability in their game.
Jokinen has taken the reigns as the Jets second line center with the defensive-minded Miettinen, allowing the free-wheeling Kane more freedom, while Antropov and Wellwood have reformed a nice chemistry that goes back to their days in Toronto. Antropov has looked quicker and more decisive with the puck, while Wellwood’s play has been getting back to where it was last year as he has been given the confidence of his head coach with added ice-time, including power-play opportunity.
After missing the first 12 games of the season, the return of defenceman Zach Bogosian has been key to the Jets defensive improvment. A rising star at the age of 22, Bogosian is a physical specimen who possesses a set of tools that do not come around every day.
A combination of size, strength, speed and power, Bogosian’s absence was felt greatly not only because of what they had lost, but also the hand that they were forced to play. His injury and then the loss of Tobias Enstrom left the Jets thin on the blueline and put the likes of Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart, Grant Clitsome, Paul Postma and Zach Redmond in a tough position. Made worse by the loss of Enstrom, the aforementioned defencemen were suddenly thrust out of their comfort zones and called upon to play more minutes in tougher situations than they were used to or suited for.
Since Bogosian’s return not only has the team benefitted from his strong play, but the play of those around him has also benefitted a great deal. Hainsey’s minutes remain high, but by being paired with Bogosian he has excelled as a top four rearguard, while the incredibly gritty Stuart no longer has the pressure of trying to be someone he’s not and has gotten back to his scratch, claw, bite, do-whatever-it-takes to not get scored on style.
In a strange reversal of last year when the Jets struggled mightily on the road, the team has oddly been better away from the MTS Centre this year. With a road record of 9-6-2, the Jets are setting themselves up perfectly if they can indeed return to being a dominant team at home.
If Tuesday’s win over Boston is any indication, the Jets may very well be getting back on track at home, so if they can continue to play above .500 on the road, they should be in good position for the post-season. It is hard to pin-point exactly why they have improved on the road this year but for whatever reason they have been able to win games they would have otherwise fell short in a year ago.
I’ll chalk it up to head coach Claude Noel.
Pavelec And PK
Ondrej Pavelec and PK, and I don’t mean Subban. The Winnipeg netminder has returned to playing the kind of hockey that can carry a team, and it has also been a huge factor in the Jets improved penalty-kill. Having won four of his past five starts, it is no coincidence that Pavelec has been popping up on all the highlight shows of late. He has been making all the saves he needs to make and many that he has no business making, giving the Jets that backbone in goal that they can rely on to secure victories and keep them in games they shouldn’t be in (Tuesday vs. Boston).
While the improved penalty-killing is certainly a team effort, the goaltender is the last line of defence and is generally called upon to make a couple saves on every power-play for the opposition. With a more determined and detail-oriented group in front of him, Pavelec has been swallowing the original shots without giving up many rebounds; something he struggled with earler in the season.
With the injury to Carolina’s Cam Ward, Pavelec is now by far the best goalie in the Southeast division, and if he can continue to play like it, the Winnipeg Jets will be the the third-seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs roll around at the end of April.