This week’s top piCks for the win
But for now, Winnipeg padding record with victories over NHL’s lesser lights
A couple questions came to mind as the Winnipeg Jets were wiping the ice surface with the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday.
One: How in the name of Eric Nesterenko did the Blackhawks get so bad?
And two: Why does it seem like the Jets have had an easy schedule so far this season?
I can’t answer the first one, although I suspect it has something to do with a lack of hunger and the onset of complacency after three Stanley Cup titles in the last decade.
As for the second one, it’s because the Jets have, indeed, had an easy schedule.
The record says they’re one of the top teams in hockey, just a point out of first place in their division and sitting in fourth spot overall going into Wednesday’s NHL schedule.
But a look at their opponents shows the Jets have been fattening up on weak competition — and falling well short against the other teams at the top.
No less than one-third of Winnipeg ’s 30 games have come against what were the bottom five teams ( by points) overall before Wednesday’s action: Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Jersey, L.A. and Chicago.
The Jets have had the luxury of playing the Blues four times already, the Blackhawks twice — and have scored 30 goals in those six games alone.
Toss in two games against the Devils and one each against the Kings and Flyers, and Winnipeg has enjoyed 10 games against the NHL’s bottom-feeding five.
Their record against them is a sparkling 9-1. Combined score, 48-25.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Jets have played just five games against their fellow top-six teams.
They have yet to play No. 1 Tampa Bay, but have squared off with No. 2 Toronto (twice), thirdranked Nashville, Calgary at No. 5 and sixth-ranked Buffalo.
Their record: 0-4-1. Combined score, 8-18.
The good news is the Jets apparently don’t take lesser opponents lightly.
The bad news? It appears they’re not quite ready for prime time.
“One of the things we’ve been good at, going back to last year and probably even prior to that, is we’ve beaten the teams below us at the right rate,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “We haven’t played a lot of teams that are ahead of us, certainly recently, but we’ve done what we needed to do. There’s lots of proving ground left for this hockey team.”
Maurice likes the way his team played in several of those games against top-tier opponents, losses against the Leafs, Sabres, Predators and Flames (at least for two periods) coming to mind.
“I haven’t felt undermanned in those games,” he said. “I felt those were good, solid, even games.”
The Jets had one disastrous period in Calgary and had to kill off eight penalties in Nashville. One Toronto loss was in a backto-back set.
Still, 0-5 is 0-5.
“You’re going to lose to somebody, so it might as well be those top five teams,” said a joking Patrik Laine. “I think, as the season goes on, we’re going to make our record look a bit better against those teams.”
It’s still relatively early.
“It’s a really small sample size,” defenceman Ben Chiarot said. “We have a young team in here, and every year we inject more young guys into our lineup. Especially early in the season, you’ve got guys trying to find their way, learning and figuring out the NHL. The first half of the season, teams are really just figuring out what they have.”
The way Chiarot sees it, it will do the Jets good to get a stiff dose of strong opponents in the season’s second half.
“You almost get more excited for them on the back half of the season, because it’s more a playoff-type atmosphere,” he said. “And we want that. Last year we had a run of teams that were battling for playoff points and were just above or below the playoff line. So they were hungry, and we were higher in the standings . ... It gets you battle-hardened for the playoffs.”
So a reckoning is coming.
Or, as Maurice put it, lots of “proving ground.”
“There’s a heavier schedule coming,” the coach said. “There’s a stack of games that the schedule itself becomes heavier. Then the team weight, it becomes heavier.”
Until then, it’s a little premature to think of the Jets as one of the NHL’s heavyweights.
The Jets celebrated a home-ice win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night — another triumph over an NHL bottom dweller.