The Winnipeg Jets are reaping the rewards from all the adversity they’ve faced this season, and are benefitting from the lessons they’ve learned from it in their stretch run.
Jets Are Tight-Knit, Fire-Forged
Winners of four of their last five and coming off a critical come-from-behind victory against the Arizona Coyotes, they haven’t caved under the pressure the Western Conference wild card battle has brought.
The win against the Coyotes — in which they didn’t get down after allowing the first two goals and carried play in the second and third — came three days after they dominated the Vegas Golden Knights in a 4-0 win and six days after a sturdy 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
The Jets also shut out Alexander Ovechkin and the high-octane Washington Capitals on Feb. 27. Their only blemish recently has been a 3-2 defeat to the Edmonton Oilers; the way they played in that game would have equalled a win on many nights.
They’re standing tall because they’re battle-tested and know how to handle high-pressure situations and adversity. They’ve been dealt blow after blow from the get-go in 2019-20 — significant back-end losses in the offseason, the Dustin Byfuglien leave of absence saga, and injury after injury to key personnel — but have scrapped and clawed through it all.
They cultivated a new identity early on this season — out of necessity, really— as a hard-working team. “Staying in the fight” has become their favourite phrase and a rallying cry.
While they got away from that identity a few months ago — a brutal stretch that caused many fans to write off any playoff hopes — here they are in March, 38-26-7 and still in the race with a dozen games to go.
“Losing some big pieces to our team, it’s kind of forced us to rally around each other and play a certain way,” Blake Wheeler said Tuesday. “So I think now our confidence comes from the fact that we rely on each guy and each guy’s got a job and each guy does that job. Even on the nights it doesn’t go our way… we have a chance to win because battle for each other. We’ve battled all year and it’s given us an opportunity to be in this position and have a chance to play in the playoffs.”
Jets Suddenly Scary to Play
The Jets have stayed afloat this season despite having an half-a-dozen or more guys on the IR most of the time.
They’re healthier now than they’ve been all season, and the return of players such as Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault and the acquisition of Cody Eakin has given an already-motivated club some extra kick. They’re four lines deep for the first time in a long time.
Lowry certainly made an impact in his return after missing 20 games with an upper-body injury he suffered after taking a blind-side hit from Drake Caggiula. The pugnacious power forward laid the body on Vinne Hinostroza and Ilya Lyubushkin behind the net and also pummeled Lawson Crouse in a fight, setting the tone for the evening’s proceedings.
“I think he announced to the world that he was back pretty quickly,” Andrew Copp said. “I don’t think you’re going to miss him on the ice too much from now on.”
Perreault was similarly a big part in his return against the Golden Knights after missing 16, scoring a goal and playing well on the fourth line with Mason Appleton and Nick Shore.
The addition of Eakin has also been a boon. The hometown product — acquired prior to last month’s trade deadline — is not afraid to go to the dirty areas in front of the net. He has four points in seven games since coming over from the Golden Knights and scored the game winner and his first as a Jet Monday on a nice in-tight backhander.
The Jets’ top guns — who were guilty, along with everyone else, of not playing urgently last month — have found their game in a big way too and have combined for 23 points in the last five.
Kyle Connor recently had a five-game goal streak, Nikolaj Ehlers has five points in his last two contests, Mark Scheifele is up above a point-per-game again, and Blake Wheeler is riding a five-game point streak.
The Jets are also deeper on defence than they’ve been all season. The Josh Morrissey/Dylan DeMelo pairing has been nothing short of a revelation and the trade that brought the latter to Winnipeg from Ottawa is looking more and more like highway robbery with every game.
Nathan Beaulieu and Tucker Poolman have both stepped it up since returning from injuries of their own. Those two pairings and the Dmitry Kulikov/Neal Pionk duo means the Jets no longer have to throw fringe defensemen into situations they can’t succeed in.
Stretch Run Will Be Fun
Despite their strong play, a playoff berth is nothing close to a guarantee. As head coach Paul Maurice said post-game Monday, “the only benefits to wins right now is you don’t have to feel sad that you lost.” No one can pat themselves on the back just yet, as there is plenty of work to do.
The Jets are bouncing in and out of the playoff picture on a daily basis. They’re tied with the Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators with 78, but those two teams own the two wild card spots as they each have a game in hand. The Minnesota Wild are one point behind all three.
The postseason doesn’t start until April 8, but the Jets are already in playoff mode. They’ll face the Canucks, Predators, Wild and Coyotes before their season ends on April 4 in what are no less than must-win games.
If the Jets do qualify, they might actually have a better chance of making some noise than last year’s squad, which fell apart down the stretch because it had no idea what to do when it wasn’t able to top opponents with sheer talent, lost first place in the Central Division, and was beaten in six by the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
The current Jets can’t be slept on right now, as they’re playing with speed, intensity and passion. That will make for an exciting finish.