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Playoff contenders or pretenders?

The Jets are a .500 team at the quarter pole and on a modest roll, but their history shows it's tough to predict long-term success

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Bryan Little’s excellent all-round play has cemented his reputation as the Jets’ No. 1 centre.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Bryan Little’s excellent all-round play has cemented his reputation as the Jets’ No. 1 centre. Photo Store

The Winnipeg Jets know better -- and their faithful can sure as heck concur -- than to make any bold declarations or come to any concrete conclusions after a modest three-game win streak.

It's a decent little run that has the Jets back into the playoff discussion, yes. But reading any more into it than that, as history has taught everyone about this occasionally brilliant and often confounding outfit, is dangerous sport.

The Jets have hit the 2013-14 quarter pole with a 9-9-2 record, having posted a 4-1 record in their last five that includes back-to-back-to-back wins over Nashville, San Jose and Detroit. And with four of their next five at home they have a chance to gain some traction in the Central Division and Western Conference races.

"We've played a lot more complete games lately," said defenceman Zach Bogosian after Tuesday's 3-2 shootout win over the Red Wings. "Our effort's been better. We keep battling and we're playing a better structured team game. We've got to keep that up.

"We can't be satisfied now because we strung together a couple of wins. We gotta make sure we're doing the things that are getting us the wins and make sure we don't stray away from that."

Here is a quick peek in the rear-view mirror at the first 20 of the Jets' 82-game trek to the ultimate goal: the franchise's first playoff spot since 2006-07:

 

THE NUMBERS

RECORD: 9-9-2

Streak: 3W

Goals for: 53; Goals against: 57. Goal differential: minus-4.

Vs. Central Division: 3-7-1

Vs. Western Conference: 6-8-1

Home: 6-5-1

Road: 3-4-1

First 10 games: 4-5-1

Last 10 games: 5-4-1

Next 10 games: vs. Philadelphia; @ Minnesota; vs. Calgary; vs. Chicago; vs. Minnesota; @ New Jersey, @ New York Islanders; @ Philadelphia; @ New York Rangers; @Florida.

 

TRENDS TO LIKE

BRYAN LITTLE'S ALL-ROUND GAME

Only three players had more goals than the Jets' centre (heading into Wednesday night) -- Alex Ovechkin, Alex Steen and Steven Stamkos, all with 14. Little has 11, already four more than a year ago, doesn't get enough credit for his defensive zone play and is tied for the league lead with two short-handed goals. Debate all you want about his place among the NHL's elite pivots, but can there be any doubt now of his place as the Jets' No. 1?

THE SHOOTOUT MAGIC

Tuesday's shootout win over Detroit improved the Jets' record in games decided by the skills competition to 4-1, tied for the best in the NHL. Worth noting: A year ago, the Jets won just two games by the shootout.

THE SHOOTOUT MAGIC, PART DEUX

Andrew Ladd has scored on all five of his shootout chances this season and his seven consecutive goals dating back to last season is the longest current streak in the NHL. FYI: Jussi Jokinen holds the NHL record with nine straight shootout goals.

THE SHOOTOUT MAGIC, PART TROIS

Ondrej Pavelec makes no secret of his absolute hate-on for the shootout (what goalie does like them?) but his numbers have improved dramatically. He has now stopped eight of the last nine shooters he has faced (15 of 22 overall) and, along with Ladd & Co., has less folks cringing when this team doesn't win in OT.

 

TRENDS THAT CONCERN

-- The penalty kill, which had been so strong for much of the early portion of the season, has now surrendered two goals in each of the last two games and has dropped from seventh-best to 15th overall.

-- Jim Slater, who recently had surgery in Montreal for a sports hernia injury, has missed 34 of the Jets' last 42 games.

-- The defensive corps is currently missing Jacob Trouba, Mark Stuart and Paul Postma to a variety of ailments and has already lost 30 man games due to injury.

-- The Jets are in the top 10 in the NHL in fewest penalty minutes per game, but continue to be sent to the sin bin for mistakes made in the offensive or neutral zones, a no-no.

-- A long-held hockey fact: It's hard to win games without the puck. The Jets rank 29th in the faceoff circle, having won just 44.4 per cent of their draws.

 

THE PROBLEM AREA

ROTTEN POWER PLAY

This isn't so much a trend anymore, but fact: the Jets' power play continues to be awful. Winnipeg was last on the power play a year ago and is last again this year. Over the last two seasons, the Jets have scored on just 26 of their 216 man-advantage changes, a lousy 12 per cent. By comparison, the Washington Capitals, first last season and topping the charts this year, have hit on 26.4 per cent of their power-play chances.

This isn't a little boo-boo for the Jets, it is an Achilles heel.

 

ON THE RISE

-- Ondrej Pavelec has won three straight, two by shootout, since Al Montoya started consecutive games against Detroit and Chicago earlier this month.

-- Andrew Ladd has nine points (2G 7A) in his last seven games.

-- Blake Wheeler may be goal-less in his last six, but does have three assists in the last two games.

-- Olli Jokinen has one goal and three assists in his last four games.

-- Bryan Little has 10 points (6G, 4A) in his last eight games.

 

THE LAST WORD

"We're back to .500," said coach Claude Noel on reaching the quarter pole. "We've just got to keep growing and moving. We're going to build on that and continue winning. This is something we need to do.

"So, for me, sitting here at 20 games we didn't know how it would go... we've had some adversity, a fair bit of it in different areas, but we persevered through this stuff."

 

-- with files from Paul Wiecek

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 14, 2013 D3

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