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Jets beware: Western Conference full of carnivores

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Call it part myth, part reality. And until the Winnipeg Jets start playing games for real in their new neighbourhood and the hard evidence starts piling up, it will remain a little of both.

Still, the general consensus as the Jets open their third campaign in Winnipeg is it's tougher hockey out there in the National Hockey League's Western Conference. The players are bigger and grittier and their new opponents employ more defensively sound systems that make for harder, heavier, nastier games.

 

So there's this warning, one the Jets have only heard a gabillion times since the league shuffled up divisions and relocated them:

If they are not ready for the long, dirty battle for playoff spots that will stretch from October to April, they will get squished by Western squads who regularly roll over opponents like tanks plowing through a field of daisies.

"It's like comparing apples and oranges," said veteran Olli Jokinen, who has played for teams in both conferences over a pro career that dates back to 1998. "There's a lot of low-scoring games and the teams are well organized and well coached. That's not taking anything away from the teams in the Eastern Conference, but it's a different style."

"I've played in both conferences and I would say the West is a little bit tighter," added Michael Frolik, who has split his career with Florida and Chicago before arriving in Winnipeg. "Every team is hard to play against -- I'm not saying the East is not -- it's just tighter.

"You don't see the 6-1 scores in the West very often, they're always 2-1 or 3-2, and it carries over into the playoffs."

Now, all of this isn't to say this defence-first, old-school approach doesn't exist in the East -- hello Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils -- but it does pose some interesting questions/concerns as the Jets attempt to become a harder team to play against and slice that gaudy number that is their goals against.

The Jets surrendered an average of 2.94 goals per game last season, 25th in the NHL, and have not finished in the top half of the NHL since 2006-07 (15th) when they qualified for the playoffs for the only time in franchise history. (Ironically, their goals-against average that season was 2.94).

Their goal differential of minus-16 was 23rd best in the NHL; the power play was ranked 30th, the penalty kill was 24th.

And if those numbers don't dramatically improve this season, the reality is the Jets will be nothing more than fresh meat for the carnivores out West.

"If you look at the league last year, most of the high goal scorers are in the East," said Devin Setoguchi, who has spent his entire career out West with San Jose and Minnesota. "I'm not saying the West is better defensively, I just think the games are different there. You're not getting those track-meet games and it comes down to one-goal games a lot of the times. That's the difference... one play, one puck not getting out that is in the back of the net. That's what Claude (Noel) has been preaching to us and it's something we need to buckle down on."

The Jets have had trouble in the past playing in those -- as Noel refers to them -- "heavier" games. But if there are more of those nights when their mix of size and skill is blending perfectly, this could be an effective club that could push for a playoff spot.

Consider, too, that the Jets are hardly tiny. Their current roster averages 6-2, 207.4 pounds.

Now it's about the buy-in to Noel's message: The attention to detail defensively, to getting in the hard areas in front of the enemy net and clogging the shooting lanes in front of their own.

In short, if it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it's time the Jets start playing a lot more like the folks in their new neighbourhood.

"Everybody asks how are we going to compete in the Western Conference," said Jokinen. "To me it's more about how we feel here in the room and how we're going to play. We shouldn't lose our focus... everybody says we're in a tougher division this year than last year.

"We believe we're a better team than we were last year and, at the same time, it's more about how we're going to play as a team and how we buy into our system. The focus has to be on what we do and the things we can control, not so much about what other teams are doing."

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

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 C3

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