After being among the teams with the fewest games played through November, the Winnipeg Jets’ schedule has ramped up considerably. The NHL schedule makers packed the team’s December dance card with 16 games in 31 days and three back-to-back situations, and they’re in the thick of it now.
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After a 3-1-0 homestand, the Jets had just one day off before playing three in four nights, with road games in St. Louis against the Blues and in Chicago against the Blackhawks followed by a home game against the Washington Capitals.
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They beat the Blues 5-2 and the Blackhawks 3-1, but then fell to the Capitals 5-2. Here are four takeaways from the trio of contests.
1) Jets Were Adaptable
On two-straight nights, the Jets were forced to adjust on the fly after injuries. On both nights, they adjusted successfully.
Saku Maenalanen was knocked out early against the Blues with an apparent shoulder injury after taking a hit from Niko Mikkola. He could not return, forcing the Jets to play with 11 forwards for about 55 minutes.
Rick Bowness deployed a variety of combinations after Maenalanen’s exit, relying on Jansen Harkins and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby to play both wings and log time on the penalty kill. While the team bent at times in the second and third, Connor Hellebuyck was up to the task and the Jets escaped with a 5-2 victory.
In the early first against the Blackhawks, Logan Stanley took an awkward and unaided fall into the end boards and injured his leg. He briefly attempted to return, but couldn’t, putting the Jets down to five defencemen and forcing everyone to eat more minutes.
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Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk, and Josh Morrissey all played 20-plus, with Morrissey — who had two assists to reach an eye-popping and team-leading 30 points — playing a team-leading 26:54. Overall, the group was still stingy, allowing 22 shots.
Up front, the new-look third line, with Harkins instead of Maenalanen on the right wing with Morgan Barron and Adam Lowry, produced a beautiful insurance goal in the third to make the game 3-1. Sam Gagner came back into the lineup to play with Jonsson-Fjallby and David Gustafsson.
After Sunday’s game, Bowness announced both players will be out for at least a month.
The fact the Jets were able to come together through adversity and still succeed speaks to the massive change in team culture Bowness has spurred in his short time as head coach. Last season, they were a fragile bunch who unraveled at the first sign of trouble. They’ve had practice coping with adversity — Mason Appleton and Nikolaj Ehlers have been out for a while and will be out for months yet — and now have to deal with losing Maenalanen, who has carved out a nice role in his return to North America.
It just seems like there’s a trust level with the players,” Morrissey said recently of the team under Bowness. “It’s not some days that he’s on that sort of level of accountability and other days that he’s not. Or some guys he is, some guys he isn’t. It’s been everyone, and it’s been every day,” Morrissey said. “We talked about looking in the mirror this offseason, as a group of players, and from veteran guys, the leadership (group) and throughout our entire team. Through the start of training camp, we asked how can we be a better team? How can we be more receptive to coaching, and not even just from the coaches, but from our teammates, whether it’s on the ice or in the locker room.
“With ‘Bones,’ every day is the same message, and it doesn’t matter who you are. We made that commitment to him and to each other, that we want to be coached and we want to be held accountable, because we feel we have something to prove here based on the last few seasons,” Morrissey continued. “Personally, it’s been refreshing to have that level of coaching and accountability. You understand what your expectations are every night.” (From ‘Move over Makar, here comes Morrissey,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Dec. 10, 2022.)
2) Jets Need Good Special Teams to Win
Special teams can often be an x-factor and they were for the Jets in the three games, for better and then for worse.
The penalty kill that’s been transformed from one of the league’s worst last season to a top-five regime this season due to a more aggressive approach, killed off 2/2 against the Blues and 3/3 against the Blackhawks, but got into trouble against the Capitals.
It’s never smart to give Alexander Ovechkin an extended opportunity to tee off shots from his office, but the Jets did that in the second as Blake Wheeler and Gustafsson took back-to-back penalties to put the team down 5-on-3.
Ovechkin didn’t score on the power play as the Jets keyed on him. While they managed to kill Wheeler’s penalty, at five on four, their focus on Ovechkin’s opened up Evgeny Kuznetsov for an uncontested backhand goal from in tight.
Similarly, the power play had goals against the Blues (1/1) and against the Blackhawks (1/4 with a lot of high-quality chances) but was weak against the Capitals.
Shortly after Kuznetsov’s power play goal, the Jets had a glorious chance to get it back as Lars Eller took a double minor for high-sticking DeMelo. Unfortunately, a Morrissey bobble at the blue line led to a Marcus Johansson breakaway, and Morrissey was forced to slash him. Johansson was awarded a penalty shot and he made no mistake, freezing Hellebuyck and roofing a backhander. (Yes, that does count as a shorthanded goal.)
The rest of the four-minute power play look disorganized, and didn’t get another opportunity after that.
3) Jets Continued Domination of Central Division Teams
Four-point games are the most important to win, and the Jets obviously know that as they’ve brought their best against Central Division foes.
The two victories improved their record against Central Division opponents to 10-2-0. They’ve won their last five divisional matchup, and have only lost one divisional game since Oct. 17. Their 20 of 24 possible points equals a .830 points percentage.
The Jets weren’t bad against the Central Division last season, with a 14-5-6 record (a .680 points percentage) but they’ve reached another level altogether this season in games that bear the biggest weight in the standings.
4) Jets Are Fallible
Sunday showed the Jets will still have rough nights, although through 27 games they have exceeded the expectations of even the most hopeful fan or pundit.
The Capitals, missing several key players to injury, deployed a neutral zone trap and it was effective at preventing the Jets from playing the speedy, direct style that led to their success against the Blues and Blackhawks. The Jets’ defensive coverage was also suspect, as they allowed the inner-slot shots they’ve been better at preventing this season and paid for it, with the visitors putting up four goals in the middle frame.
“If you can figure it out (the trap) you can get chances and opportunities,” Pierre-Luc Dubois said. “If you don’t, it’s hard to establish a forecheck and we had a tough time tonight, whether it was the placement of our dumps or getting that speed to forecheck.”
It was encouraging to see the Jets push back and not phone in the final 20 as they scored two early on and worked hard until the final horn. That type of effort is what Bowness expects and once again indicates the culture is improving under his stern-but-nurturing leadership style that enables players to be their best selves but holds them accountable.
They’re not immune to a poor performance, but considering they’re tied for first in the Central at 18-8-1, they should have faith they can get back to form quickly. It won’t be easy, though, as their next contest is against the Vegas Golden Knights in a clash between the Western Conference’s two top teams.
“We’re a good team. We’re in first place for a reason. We’ll bounce back,” Bowness promised.