ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — The Winnipeg Jets are facing an extremely difficult two-week stretch. As the second half of the 2019-20 season arrives on Saturday afternoon, the Jets find themselves tied with Calgary and Edmonton for the final two playoff spots in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference.
It’s never easy, but right now, it’s as difficult as it’s ever going to get.
The Jets are now 22-16-3 after the first 41 games of this 82-game season and things are a lot different now than they were in late November when the Winnipegs just couldn’t seem to lose. They went 13-3-2 in November and the first week of December and popped out of a 6-7-0 start to nail down third place in the Central Division. They were 19-10-2 at the time and looked great.
Then, they lost 5-2 in Detroit to a marginal Red Wings team and they couldn’t find the magic again. Sure, they had a trio of great games. They beat Philadelphia 7-3, shut out Minnesota in St. Paul, 6-0 and outscored Colorado 7-4 in Denver. However, since Dec. 10, the Jets have gone 3-6-1 and fallen back to the pack in the West.
Granted, the Jets are still fourth in the Central, just three points back of Dallas, but make no mistake, with injuries to Bryan Little, Andrew Copp, Mathieu Perreault and Dmitry Kulikov and with Dustin Byfuglien in limbo, the Jets just didn’t have the depth to keep up that torrid November/early December pace.
When you’re forced to run out a few AHL defensemen and two AHL lines every night, it will catch up to you.
Still, the Jets remain better than most expected after the team lost Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, Jacob Trouba and Brandon Tanev in the off-season. They’re still six games over .500 – thanks in no small way to the brilliance of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck – and they still have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs if Copp, Little and Kulikov (who all skated today) return from their injuries sooner as opposed to later.
However, the month of January is nasty. The Jets play in St. Paul again on Saturday and then they go to Montreal on Tuesday, Toronto on Wednesday and Boston on Thursday. Then they return home (where they have been pretty lousy in the last week or so) and play Nashville on Sunday the 12th, Vancouver on Tuesday the 14thand Tampa on Thursday the 16th. This is a seven-game stretch that could be either devastating to their chances or turn them into a team to be reckoned with. In fact, if they play well enough to go just 4-3-0 through this nasty stretch, it won’t kill them.
To their credit, the Jets have overcome a load of adversity. Goaltending has helped. Although Hellebuyck wasn’t very good against Toronto in a 6-3 loss at home on Thursday, he’s been outstanding for most of the season, won a handful of games by himself and certainly earned his all-star nod. On defense, Neal Pionk has been a pleasant surprise and Luca Sbisa has been much better than expected. Up front, the Jets have a chance to do something this franchise hasn’t done since the 1984-85 season – produce five 30-goal scorers.
In ‘84-85, six Jets scored 30 — Dale Hawerchuk (53), Paul MacLean (41), Laurie Boschman (32), Brian Mullen (32), Doug Smail (31) and Thomas Steen (30) all crossed the 30-goal plateau while Scott Arniel and Perry Turnbull each added 22.
This year, Kyle Connor (21), Mark Schiefele (19), Nikolaj Ehlers (16) and Patrik Laine (15) are all on pace to score at least 30 while Blake Wheeler (13) could reach 30 (he certainly has the skills) if the injured players return and the lines get settled. It would be quite a feat and testament to the brilliance of the five world-class players who lead this team up front if all five them get to 30.
Most importantly, if the Jets can shake off their bad luck (and a lot of it is bad luck – see: Bryan Little), they just might survive January.
As head coach Paul Maurice has pointed out on a couple of occasions: “If it gets quiet on the bench when we get down, we talk about it right away. I pay more attention to the mood in terms of what’s happening on the ice. It’s a young group. Teaching them, sometimes you have to learn how to handle that kind of adversity. This is where you need to start talking again.
“They’ve been good on the bench,” Maurice added. “They’ve stayed in the fight.”
Indeed, through the first half of the season, the Winnipeg Jets have stayed in the fight.
But the fight gets really serious now. We’ll learn over the course of the next two weeks if the Jets really have what it takes.