LOS ANGELES -- From Babygate to the cold reality of another season ending in disappointment to a startling performance against one of the NHL's best teams, things are far from boring around the Winnipeg Jets these days.
The Jets could have checked out by now, having realized their playoff dreams have morphed into another late-season nightmare, but that hasn't been the case. They put in a strong effort on Monday in a loss to the Dallas Stars and Thursday they knocked off Joe Thornton and his top-seeded San Jose Sharks. The Jets, whatever their faults, have not quit on themselves.
"This was the first time we talked about the playoffs and our situation," said coach Paul Maurice, following Thursday's surprising 4-3 win over the Sharks. "We talked about what a steep hill we have to climb. We have to play hard for the faith in the room and the confidence in the room. We have to get to the place where we do things at the same pace and with the same compete level regardless of the surroundings and the environment, such as a playoff race. The compete level was real good and that's a good sign."
Here are some observations from a trip that began in Texas, moved over to California and will wind up in Phoenix next week:
Wheeler's a wheel
Blake Wheeler is Winnipeg's best player right now and he just might make a push to be one of the league's top wingers. He has always had the speed, size and skill to be a standout, but consistency has been lacking. A slow start to this season brought Wheeler into the line of fire and diminished his chances at making the U.S. Olympic squad. Through 21 games on Nov. 15, Wheeler had just 12 points. In the 53 games, since he's collected 50 points and become a legitimate point-a-game man. The Jets have some bright young players in Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, but if this is the Wheeler the team can consistently rely on, there will be no bigger spoke in the wheel than No. 26. Through 74 games, Wheeler has 25 goals and 62 points -- just two shy of his career best.
All credit to goalie Al Montoya. From this perspective his string of six straight starts was a successful audition and he's deserving of a return engagement. Montoya went 3-3 and had a save percentage above .900 in all but one of those games. I don't see Montoya as the No. 1 answer for the Jets in goal going forward, but he's a serviceable second goalie, well-liked by his teammates and willing to do whatever the team asks of him.
Andrew Ladd was strong in his return to action on Thursday, scoring a goal and playing an effective game at both ends of the ice. Suggestions Ladd had somehow let his team down by missing a game to be at his wife's side for the birth of their second child were all wet. When this team went south earlier this season, resulting in the firing of Claude Noel, it was fair to put Ladd's leadership abilities under scrutiny. Paul Maurice likes Ladd as a captain and his teammates rallied around him this week. All in all, this is much ado about nothing and may bring the Jets a little closer as a team. It also sends notice to players in the league the organization cares about its players and their families. I don't know how that can be a bad thing.
Another game, another blank scoresheet for Evander Kane. The Jets power forward and one-time 30-goal scorer is in a terrible drought, having scored just three goals in his last 19 games. Kane has 11 points over that stretch, but he's a goal scorer and the Jets need him to put the puck in the net. Kane will be the highest-paid Jet in 2014-15 at $6 million per season and my bet is he'll be ready to take the next step and become a consistent goal scorer. It should be noted, Kane has been skating on a line with Eric O'Dell and whoever else fits that particular night for the last stretch of games. O'Dell is a nice story, but the Jets need to figure a way to unlock Kane's potential. Pairing him with the right centre is a mystery that needs to be solved.
Maurice hasn't decided whether he'll return to the Jets for next season, but if he does, it appears the workload will get a little heavier. Maurice gave his players a conditioning skate at the end of a practice in San Jose on Wednesday and when asked about it, he made clear it would be the norm rather than the exception.
"We're going to work harder," he said. "That wasn't even a skate. We need a man's training camp. We need to work harder."
The Jets will roll into Phoenix next Tuesday to play the team that once lived in Winnipeg. The original Jets, now known as the Coyotes, have gone on a nice little run of late to put themselves back in a playoff position. The Coyotes own the last wild-card berth and held a five-point lead on their closest pursuer prior to Friday's action. The Jets are on the verge of elimination and they'll be in the role of spoiler when they get to Arizona. Reports have as many as 1,500 Jets fans planning to be in the building for the game, and they'll be rooting for the new franchise, not the old.