Jets looking strong at home, now for a solid road swing
THEIR t wo games at home this week — most of December, in fact — are the stuff on which the Winnipeg Jets could build some momentum in the Central Division.
But there is quicksand with the predicament they are in. Every point for the standings is helpful, but when you get so far behind, ground is amazingly difficult to make up.
The Jets ran their December record at the MTS Centre to 6-1-0 after defeating the Detroit Red Wings 4-1 Tuesday night, and have looked frequently like a playoff team when they play here.
But for all the improvement, they have only wobbled between six and eight points back of the Western Conference playoff line.
Building a streak and eating into the deficit also requires a better road record, and that opportunity is straight ahead with a five-gamer starting Thursday in Arizona.
“We got a little rest,” said Jets right-winger Blake Wheeler, asked about improving fortunes at home after a two-assist night gave him to 37 points in 36 games this season. “The schedule was pretty daunting in November. We’ve been able to catch our breath at home.”
Jets coach Paul Maurice was claiming progress as his team moved back to the .500 mark at 17-17-2.
“For almost a month now, you can talk about it in terms of wins, not staying with it,” Maurice said, his team now 11-4-2 against the Eastern Conference. “That’s one of the reasons that made us successful, and we just want to continue to do that.” The Jets took an odd path to pounce on the vulnerable Red Wings, who had played Monday in Minnesota and lost 3-1.
Winnipeg spent six of the game’s first seven minutes in the penalty box and by some sleight of hand forged a 2-0 lead before 11 minutes had gone by.
Jacob Trouba’s short-handed goal at 4:27 and Andrew Ladd’s five-on-three goal at 10:29 were the rewards.
“You’re nervous when you’re in the box for six straight minutes, but our penalty kill now is as good as it’s been all year,” Maurice said. “They’re a good team — really, really quick, with high skill level.
“Even some of the things that didn’t look dangerous were dangerous until they weren’t. We knocked a bunch of stuff down, and Connor (Hellebuyck) played a really strong game. But I thought we had enough energy and our penalty kill was playing with enough pace that you’re not standing on the bench sure they’re going to rip one by you.” The Red Wings had six power plays, four in the first alone, but the Jets killed well above their average (77.7 per cent, 26th in the NHL) Tuesday.
Detroit’s sixth power play was the only successful one, producing Pavel Datsyuk’s goal early in the third, but only to make it 4-1.
Maurice said he had no problem with the radar blip, since his team has been better in this department of late.
“You can do that as long as you’re not doing that every night,” he said. “We’ve been really good with our discipline and our sticks, and in the last three or four games there’s been a big change.” Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was the best netminder in the game, handling 33 of Detroit’s 34 shots, including breakaways by Darren Helm and Datsyuk. And Hellebuyck has looked another level more comfortable this week, now having started 10 NHL games. He’s 7-3-0.
“A lot more comfortable,” the 22-year-old rookie said. “Nine games more comfortable. And a month more comfortable. Time will tell.”
Hellebuyck said that not only he, but the entire team, benefited from the Christmas schedule break.
“I don’t know that I realized how much harder this level is than the AHL,” Hellebuyck said. “The AHL’s hard, but it’s more maintaining. Here, you have to go as hard as you can every night and even in practice, guys expect the same out of you.
“So it’s almost a little more stress on the body.”