The Winnipeg Jets are in first place.
This phrase hasn’t been uttered in over a year in Manitoba’s capital.
Prior to their 5-4 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg had not led the Southeast Division since February 23, 2012. A 4-3 win over the Tampa Lightning that evening put the Jets atop the Southeast Division for the first time since the franchise’s relocation from Atlanta.
Winning isn’t something the Jets/Thrashers franchise is accustomed to. They also rarely rise to the occasion on the biggest of stages.
A few examples of note:
- 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils in the franchise’s first ever game.*
- 4-0 sweep in the franchise’s only playoff appearance in the 2007 playoffs*
- 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first NHL game in Winnipeg in 15 years*
*Denotes sellout crowd(s)
There are plenty more examples that could be added, but those tand out the most in recent franchise history
Jets at full throttle
Winnipeg is one of the hottest teams in the league at this point in this 2013 NHL season. They aren’t the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won nine straight, but they’re one of only five Eastern Conference teams with six or more wins in their last ten games.
Before Sunday’s 4-1 loss at the Panthers, the Jets had matched their season high 3-game win streak with the victory over the Leafs and had earned at least one point in their past six contests.
Currently the Jets hold a one point lead in the division over second place Carolina, but the Hurricanes have played two fewer games and have as many wins as Winnipeg (15).
Will the Jets remain in first place and earn their first NHL division title in six years and the city’s first ever NHL division crown?
For the team, it’s a question way to early to answer and one that you’re not going to answer with a yes or no with 19 games remaining in this roller coaster ride of a season. As fans and followers of the NHL, it is almost innate when you open the sports page and see your team atop the latest standings.
The next two weeks is crucial for Winnipeg as five of their next seven games are against division opponents, including two against the aforementioned Canes and two against third place Washington. If the Jets earn a clean two points in those games i.e. no overtime or shootout victories, they will begin to separate themselves from the rest of the division.
Offensive consistency, defensive depth needed down the stretch
Captain Andrew Ladd continues to lead the squad in all three scoring categories and currently has a four-game point streak. The line of him, Bryan Little, and Blake Wheeler is one of the best in hockey as they boast a combined 70 points on the season. The threesome has also recorded points in eight of the past 10 games for Winnipeg. As long as the Ladd, Little, Wheeler trio keeps fueling the team’s offensive engine, and others like Olli Jokinen and Evander Kane follow suit, the Jets will continue to soar.
The defensive end is where there’s concern for Winnipeg. Backstop Ondrej Pavelec has faced the second most shots of any NHL goalie this season (730) and has been between the pipes for 1,501 minutes, fourth most in the league thus far. To the Jets credit, they’ve overcome the losses of top d-man Tobias Enstrom and previously Dustin Byfuglien as rookies like Paul Postma and Zach Redmond have stepped up in their absences. Still, the Jets, much like the Thrashers did, allow way too many shots on a nightly basis. If Enstrom can make a late season return and be of use to Winnipeg, that will go a long ways towards any type of playoff run.
Offensive consistency, better defense, and added depth: sounds like a typical recipe for NHL success, but if the Jets accomplish those three things, this last month of the 48-game sprint will be an exciting one, especially in Winnipeg.