May 22, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
It's not the marathon everyone in the NHL is accustomed to running -- a gruelling October-to-June trek that is a test of fitness, will and survival.
But a condensed, 48-game regular season leading into the playoffs isn't exactly a sprint, either, where falling on your lips out of the starting block means you are staring at an opponent's glutes for the rest of the race.
So, the best analogy might be this: the 2013 regular season will be more of a middle-distance run where a good start will be important, but not critical. It will also combine all the elements that make up a great marathoner -- a good set of lungs and all that heart and will stuff -- just to get to the post-season party.
Here's a look at five keys to a condensed season for the Winnipeg Jets:
WE know what you're thinking: "Goaltening is key?! No (kidding) Sherlock, goaltending is always critical. Like, duh."
Good point, that. Having a reliable puckstopper is mammoth whether it's Game 7 or a team is staring at a full season.
But here's where the Jets need Ondrej Pavelec to take an important step. His numbers last season -- a 2.91 goals-against and .906 save percentage -- are hardly sparkling. And yet there were many nights when he salvaged a point for a team that finished 26th in goals against. That trend of inconsistency continued during the lockout, where his numbers were awful in the Czech Extraliga, but where he was brilliant for his country in the Karjala Cup in November.
If he's going to be worth the value of his new contract, Pavelec must morph into a Henrik Lundqvist type that, from the moment he leads his mates onto the ice there is an air of invincibility -- much the same way an ace pitcher boosts his squad when he first toes the rubber on the mound.
Pavelec is a workhorse, starting 67 games for the Jets a year ago, but the addition of former first-round draft pick Al Montoya does give the Jets an intriguing option to turn to if their No. 1 stopper slumps.
IT was tough enough for the Jets to stay healthy last year -- the team's totals had the number of man games lost at 282 -- and so cramming 48 games into 90-some nights has groin pull written all over it.
It wasn't just the total of games lost last year that stung the Jets, but who was absent and for how long: Toby Enstrom missed 20 games, Dustin Byfulgien was gone for 16, Zach Bogosian -- who will start the year on the hurts list -- was twice injured for a total of 17 while Ron Hainsey also went on the DL twice and missed 25 games. That's a whole lot of time in the press box for members of the top two defensive pairings.
It also means this: The guys in St. John's should stay sharp because the miles racked up between Winnipeg and Newfoundland could be monumental.
THIS will be hard to measure by anyone other than those guys in the dressing room. But a team with big-time voices in the room -- guy who can push, pull and carry a team during the grind and won't settle for mediocrity on and off the ice -- is more likely to be in the Stanley Cup derby than a team without.
And this is where the Jets need some big steps forward in their maturation. After all, this is a franchise that has made the playoffs just once in its existence.
ANOTHER intangible that really has no measuring point. The general consensus is the Jets had a good room last year. Players got along, there weren't any real cliques and they liked to hang with each other. And, for all that, they finished 11th in the Eastern Conference.
What does work in the Jets' favour is they do have some continuity, especially compared to some NHL rivals which have new coaches implementing new systems or have undergone significant roster turnovers.
Watch for Noel to start the season with the Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler line intact while also pairing other forwards who worked well together -- like Alex Burmistrov and Nik Antropov, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn, Kyle Wellwood and Evander Kane.
The newness of being in Winnipeg and working with Noel, for some players he was their third coach in four years, has also evaporated.
WANDER into any NHL rink over the last few days and you'll hear a common refrain about having to get off to a fast start and blah, de-blah, blah.
It's not that the notion is wrong. Quite obviously, a team that stumbles early is going to be in chase mode very quickly.
But some numbers here to consider, using the shortened season of 1994-95 as a guide:
All this considered, a memo to hockey fans: buckle up for this is going to be a wild ride.
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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 C3