Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Defence starts with an O

Offensive checking, Ondrej keys to Jets' hopes

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The recent offensive outburst, 32 goals in eight games, has done wonders for the Winnipeg Jets' revived hopes for a shot at the Stanley Cup tournament.

There would appear to be no illusions, though, that prevention of goals isn't going to drop far, if at all, on the team's list of priorities over the final 16 games of the NHL's regular season.

In that context, the goalscoring exploits of Evander Kane or Blake Wheeler or Andrew Ladd are not going to eclipse goalie Ondrej Pavelec or prevention frontliners that make up the GST Line for the MTS Centre faithful.

"I don't downplay the importance they've had all year," Jets coach Claude Noel said Saturday of his unit of Jim Slater, Tanner Glass and Chris Thorburn. "They've been a pretty big staple of our lineup all season. I don't see that changing."

The Jets went back to work Saturday after a day off, still in eighth spot with 70 points in the Eastern Conference. And they will be eighth today, regardless of Saturday's results.

Staying there, or climbing or falling, will have much to do with how Noel matches different opponents and how the GST Line can perform.

"The opponent, what they present, that kind of dictates how you're going to match this up," Noel said. "And then, the other thing is are they able to handle the challenge. I know they like it, it's a bigger role on the team and they like that responsibility, but there are other factors involved dealing with matchups."

Noel cited ice time as one factor. Does he want the GST three playing 22 minutes to match opposing stars?

If you engage in that, "who's not playing on your team?" the coach said. "If you're going to go hard match, maybe you use two lines versus (their) one."

Though he didn't rule it out, Noel sounded wary of much hard matching, especially at home.

"Then the opponent is controlling your bench and I don't care to have the opponent dictate who I put on the ice," he said.

"As a coach, if you get into the matchup game, you can really keep the other team's best players off the ice and that really irritates the other team's players."

"There are pros and cons to it. I can't take away from what I'm doing with the other three lines."

The subject brought a smile to Slater's face on Saturday.

Of course it would.

"It's what we do," he said. "To have a successful team, you need to have guys who know and accept their roles. I think Thorbs and Glasser and myself have really accepted that and thrived off what Coach Noel has given us.

"There hasn't really be a coach that's given all three of us an opportunity like Claude's given us.

"If we can just be responsible and keep playing hard against the other team's top lines, I think our confidence definitely grows. I think Claude thinks we're a very reliable line so that's a big thing."

Slater said that there are some daunting opponents to face over the next 16 games -- he declined to name individuals -- but that star status isn't the only criteria used to judge who wins the battles.

"Obviously there are superstars throughout the league you never want to face all the time," he said. "But it's your competitive nature that you want to show you can shut this guy down. It's something I really look forward to.

"They get the big bucks and they're considered superstars but it doesn't mean that I can't outwork them. I might not have better skill but I can definitely outwork them."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 4, 2012 B3

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