Heading into a mini three-game series against the Scotia North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs, there were plenty of questions regarding how the Winnipeg Jets were going to rise to the occasion. After being blown out last Saturday at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the trio of games in Toronto would serve as an important measuring stick for the organization, more than likely providing insight on what direction the team was trending in.
Today, as the Jets return home from their lengthy road trip, their confidence should be at an all-time high, as they managed to escape with seven of 10 possible points, putting themselves within striking distance of those Maple Leafs, closing the gap to just four points with two games in hand.
Thanks largely in part to Vezina-calibre goaltending and a forward group that captured lightning in a bottle, the Jets took advantage of the opportunities that were handed to them and return to Bell MTS Place poised to make a run at the Scotia North Division crown.
To break down their successful road trip, here are three takeaways from what was a wild week in Jets country.
Ehlers Continues to Drive Jets Offense
One of the biggest reasons why Patrik Laine’s departure from the team hasn’t largely impacted the Jets offense is mainly due to their new-look second line. With Nikolaj Ehlers being the focal point alongside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor, the Jets have managed to march forward in dominant fashion, and that was no different against the Maple Leafs.
Finishing the three-game series with six points, Ehlers continued his offensive brilliance, all while averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time per game. With Connor and Dubois combining for just three points collectively, Ehlers’ impact has been even more evident during this unprecedented season.
Finding open space, being aggressive on the forecheck, and simply finishing from all areas of the ice has made Ehlers one of Winnipeg’s most potent offensive threats. Particularly when the Paul Stastny, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler line is matched up against the opposition’s top defensive units, a large portion of the offensive responsibility often falls on the shoulders of the Jets’ second line.
While averaging just a half point per game in last year’s playoffs, Ehlers’ production this time around will likely be one of the deciding factors behind Winnipeg’s playoff success.
Hellebuyck the Difference Maker
Yes, the Jets managed to escape with two out of three victories in Toronto, but whether they deserved to is an entirely different question. If you believe in the concept that “the best team is the team that wins,” then yes, the best team won two out of three times.
However, following this series in particular, many would argue that the Maple Leafs deserved a better fate than what they received, and Connor Hellebuyck is the primary reason why the Jets managed to come away with three points in the first two games.
In Game 1, the Jets were vastly outplayed. For a large portion of that contest, the Maple Leafs established the cycle game, sustaining an extended amount of offensive-zone pressure and forcing Hellebuyck to replicate similar performances seen by Thatcher Demko and David Rittich just a couple weeks prior.
Hellebuyck, who turned aside 36 of 39 shots, stole Game 1 for the Jets, proving why the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is still among the league’s best goaltenders.
To accent matters even further, Hellebuyck doubled down and managed to one-up his own performance in Game 2, despite coming out on the wrong side of a 4-3 overtime loss. Robbing William Nylander on countless occasions and turning aside three separate breakaways was impressive enough, but perhaps what was even more admirable was the way Hellebuyck controlled the play while the Jets were being dominated.
Following Game 2, the Maple Leafs led in high danger scoring chances (15-2), scoring chances (30-12), and shots (24-16), yet the Jets still managed to escape with a point, summing up the importance of Hellebuyck’s performance and his ever-present role behind the Jets’ overall success.
Paul Maurice seemed to sum it up perfectly:
We have a really, really, really good goalie.– Paul Maurice, following the Jets only loss against Toronto
Ultimately, while Hellebuyck’s play certainly isn’t sustainable, he’s provided a much-needed bridge to allow the Jets’ defense to re-organize. And in a series where goaltending would be a subject of conversation, Hellebuyck vastly outperformed Frederik Andersen and as a result, the Jets leave Scotiabank Arena with five out of a possible six points.
Jets Defense a Cause for Concern
While the Jets’ road trip was an overall success, an underlying problem continues to plague the organization, one that they’re all too familiar with.
Defensively, the team has struggled. Behind Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk, who log the majority of ice time on the back end, the Jets have experimented with a multitude of combinations, and none have seemingly worked together.
Tucker Poolman has struggled with consistency, with his injury recovery playing a big role behind his struggles, Dylan DeMelo also missed time and hasn’t been like himself, and Nathan Beaulieu was just ruled out for the foreseeable future due to injury.
This poses a problem not only today, but for this season and beyond. The Jets seem to be in an awkward “middle of the road” phase with their defensive structure, one where they don’t seem comfortable to implement prospects like Logan Stanley, Ville Heinola, or Sami Niku full-time and one where quarantine and COVID-19 regulations complicates trade deadline plans.
For a blue line that has made do in a tough situation, there is concern for long-term plans, with the playoffs quickly approaching. Utilizing young prospects full-time or trading assets away for a rental comes with various pros and cons, but both plans seem more viable than sticking with a defensive structure that has lacked consistency.
By simply looking at this past series against the Leafs, it’s clear that the Jets need to do something. If it weren’t for their stellar goaltending, they would more than likely not be second in the division, riding a wave of confidence heading home.
Should Kevin Cheveldayoff elect to do something, it would serve the Jets well that that decision comes sooner rather than later, since the race in the Scotia North Division is only starting to heat up.
Jets Return Home for 2 Before Heading West
The schedule only gets more hectic moving forward, as the Jets head home for a pair of games against the Montreal Canadiens before heading out west on another lengthy road trip.
The Jets certainly put the rest of the division on notice, taking two out of the three games against the North’s best and setting themselves up for a dominant second half of the month. Should the offense continue to click and the defense improves, the Jets could be one of the teams to watch as the season approaches its final month.
What did you think of Winnipeg’s performance against Toronto? What changes do they have to make moving forward? Let me know in the comments.
Currently a sport media student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Josh Kim is a freelance photographer and journalist with The Hockey Writers. Having worked within the ECHL, PWHPA, and OHL in a variety of content-based roles, Josh has been working in sports for the past 5+ years and currently finds himself working with Ryerson athletics as a sports photographer. With The Hockey Writers, Josh chases feature stories while also covering the Winnipeg Jets, the World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft. While hockey continues to be his main focus, Josh is also a fully credentialed WNBA writer and the host of the Get Your Head in the Game podcast, which emphasizes the connection between mental health and sport. If you’re interested in seeing a full display of his work, if you’ve got a story tip, or just want to get in touch, please find Josh’s socials linked below his articles and visit his website: joshkimphoto.com