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Re-energized Jets flying high

Maurice has club working hard and playing much better defence

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Winnipeg Jets rookie centre Scheifele (right) has been generating a lot of offence in recent weeks.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Winnipeg Jets rookie centre Scheifele (right) has been generating a lot of offence in recent weeks. Photo Store

It was Tuesday morning at the Honda Centre in Anaheim and his team had just gone through their morning skate when Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice was asked what he hoped to learn about his new club as they embarked on a two-game California road trip through a couple of the toughest buildings in the NHL.

"A measuring stick," replied Maurice, "maybe not in terms of who we are, but where we're at."

Well, after a 3-2 win in Anaheim over the Ducks on Tuesday and a 1-0 loss to the Sharks in San Jose on Thursday, it says here Maurice -- and the rest of Jets nation -- learned a little something about this Jets team in both respects.

So, who is this Jets team after five games under Maurice? Well, for starters, they're 4-1 since Maurice took over from Claude Noel on Jan. 12, the only blemish under the new regime coming in that narrow loss to San Jose in a game the Jets felt afterward like they had every chance to win.

"I thought we did a lot of good things (Thursday night)," said captain Andrew Ladd. "We played a solid game. We could have done some things better, maybe get some more pucks towards the net, maybe controlled the puck a little better in their end.

"But on the other hand, we did a lot of good things defensively and didn't give them a whole lot. So we'll move on and try to get better in the areas that we need to."

While there are no moral victories right now for a team with a 23-24-5 record and looking up -- way up -- at a Western Conference playoff spot, the fact the Jets held the high-octane Sharks to just one goal in a building in which San Jose has lost just twice in regulation this season -- and did it just two nights after handing Anaheim their first regulation loss at home this year -- is clearly a vast improvement over the anemic team that was mired in a three-game losing streak two weeks ago.

"Our compete level is there," said Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian, "and we're working harder. It's good to see the guys kind of rally behind that."

And that gets us back to who this Jets team is under Maurice. As Maurice sees it, the club has bought into the new emphasis on defence he has preached since taking over, something that was clearly in evidence in a win over Anaheim in which his club blocked a season-high 36 shots.

While that's way too many shots -- particularly when you consider the Ducks also got another 42 shots to the Jets net -- there's perhaps no better gauge of a team's grit than its willingness to throw its body in front of slapshots.

Or, for that matter, the way they came en masse to the defence Thursday of rookie Jacob Trouba after he was run into the boards from behind, a response Maurice said afterward that he liked.

"I really like the potential of our group," said Maurice. "I think there's a lot of teaching that can go on, it's still a young group. But their willingness has been great. They do what you ask them. They try hard to do those things...

"The last two teams we played had a completely different offensive capability than the first three. And I still liked a lot of what I saw defensively. They didn't break us.

"Our offence has to improve, and it will. But that core backbone of how we played defensively got tested by two really good offensive teams and it did well."

Ladd says there's been no question since Maurice took over about who is in charge.

"I think he's done a good job of coming in and giving us direction and a little intensity to our game," said Ladd. "He definitely pushes some buttons and has some great control behind the bench. I think we've been playing extremely well as a team."

"He's brought some more intensity and energy to our team," said Trouba.

So that's who the Jets are right now. But where are they in terms of how their game right now stacks up against the rest of the league?

Well, with gritty efforts and a split against two of the best teams in the NHL, it would appear this team can compete on any given night with the very best in the league. And with four wins in their last five games, there appears to be at least the start of the kind of consistency that was so lacking under Noel.

But with just 51 points in the standings and just 30 games left to play, the cold hard facts are the Jets are going to need to win roughly two-thirds of their remaining games if they're going to make the playoffs.

That's a lot to ask, but Maurice is going to keep asking it.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 C2

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