Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to make homestand hay

Noel sees the points piling up in December

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One truism in the National Hockey League is that the Stanley Cup cannot be won in October but the season can certainly go out the window before the calendars turn to November.

The Winnipeg Jets could well be the exception to this in 2011-12. No, the Cup was not available in October, but it's December that's going to determine so much.

The stretch of games that's coming at the MTS Centre starting Tuesday (which is, admittedly, Nov. 29) is shaping up as a tell-all for the relocated franchise. It has struggled mightily to get its bearings since the official puck-drop of the new era on Oct. 9.

Something like the kid who spins and spins and then tries to walk a straight line down the sidewalk.

Jets coach Claude Noel used the phrase "all over the map" again on Saturday night when his team dropped a 4-2 decision in Boston. It has applied on many a night so far to one or all of the Jets.

In the team's search for identity, however, there has been sufficient encouraging play that the season is not lost as of today.

The Jets are 9-10-4 having played an NHL-high 15 road games already. Their 22 points say they are not yet dismissed from the Eastern Conference playoff picture but there is some ground to make up.

With 13 of the next 15 games in downtown Winnipeg, the window of opportunity is open.

Noel started, but couldn't bring himself to say it after Saturday's game, that if he'd been asked some time ago about his team's record today, he'd have taken 9-10-4. Nobody wants to take a losing record.

But Noel spun this subject furiously, giving away much optimism about the games straight ahead, the point being that the season is far from lost.

"We've played well and the growth is good for me. We're going to be OK," he said. "You have to be patient. The important thing for me is, 'Does your team care? Do they care about each other and about winning?' And they do."

The Ottawa Senators provide the first home test on Tuesday and after Sunday's travel day home from Boston and the 1-1-1 road swing last week, the coach said intense focus is going straight to Game 1 of the homestand.

"Come Tuesday's game, we've got to take a step forward," he said. "We've got to practise on Monday and ... we're going to be fine. We're going to be putting our best foot forward on our homestand. It won't be easy. It'll come through work."

One of the reasons the team is in the position of opportunity is that it has exceeded many expectations for goals.

The Jets have scored 66 through 23 games, certainly qualifying as more than those who had predicted dire offensive challenges had imagined.

For context, the number puts the team in very good company in the Eastern Conference. It is better than all but two teams in the Western Conference.

And it is trending better than the very rocky start the Jets experienced, when they scored just 11 times in the first six games. That leaves 55 goals for the 17 games since Oct. 20.

"I would say, yeah, I've been pretty impressed with the skill level guys have been showing," Jets forward Kyle Wellwood said on Saturday, asked to comment on the bigger picture of the team's offence. "Over the last month, it's encouraging to see the way guys can skate and pass the puck and finish.

"Even here tonight we were close to getting the third goal out there. Look at (Tim) Thomas's stats. He doesn't give up two. We had our chances to put the tie on."

Defenceman Zach Bogosian, who has become one of the most dutiful spokesmen for his teammates, suggested that there is likely some meaning in these goals.

"I'm sure a lot of people weren't sure what to expect coming into this year," Bogosian said. "I think we've been scoring collectively. We have a lot of good, talented players in here that maybe don't get as much credit as some other guys around the league but that being said, I think we have to take full advantage of playing at home for that long.

"We need to make the crowd kind of enjoy the atmosphere. It's definitely something we have to take full advantage of."

Goals of the first quarter won't automatically translate into the second quarter and beyond but for these Jets, there's no time like the present.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Home cooking

Jets schedule, now to Dec. 31:

HOME GAMES

Ottawa

Phoenix

New Jersey

Boston

Carolina

Minnesota

Washington

Anaheim

NY Islanders

Montreal

Pittsburgh

Los Angeles

Toronto

ROAD GAMES

Detroit

Colorado

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2011 C6

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