This week’s top piCks for the win

But for now, Win­nipeg pad­ding record with vic­to­ries over NHL’s lesser lights

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL FRIESEN Win­nipeg [email protected]­media.com Twit­ter.com/friesen­sun­media

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.

KEVIN KING

The Jets cel­e­brated a home-ice win over the Chicago Black­hawks on Tues­day night — an­other tri­umph over an NHL bot­tom dweller.

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