Cram the crease

Playing tough in hard areas key to Jets' success


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The way Dave Lowry sees it, the road to the top of the NHL mountain starts in front of the other team's net.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2021 (519 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The way Dave Lowry sees it, the road to the top of the NHL mountain starts in front of the other team’s net.

That’s where plenty of goals are scored. That’s where the biggest battles are. And that’s where the Winnipeg Jets need to get a whole lot better. Too often, this talented but flawed squad suffers from perimeter-itis, refusing to go to the hard areas while trying to get far too cute. That’s often left them on the outside looking in when it comes to success — which is priority No 1 for the team’s new interim bench boss.

“What we really want is we want drivers in our offence. We want guys that, once the puck enters the zone, we want guys that are going to get to that area. And, at the end of the day, the puck has to end up there to score goals. And we want to make sure that we do have bodies there as well,” Lowry said following an hour-long practice Monday at Canada Life Centre in which the majority of drills were designed to do just that.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Jets had an hour-long practice Monday at Canada Life Centre.

“I think what you try and do, and the one thing we have to try to understand: not everybody’s going to go there. But everybody has to have an understanding that we do need — we need pucks to get to the net and we need bodies to get to the net. And it’s no secret. It’s hard to defend. We find it hard to defend. We want to continue to use the net front as a starting point for our offence.”

The Jets, at 14-11-5 and three points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot, have plenty of ground to make up in the remaining 52 regular-season games. But they also are getting some time to try and cure what ails with them. After beating St. Louis 4-2 on Dec. 19, their last four games have all been postponed due to COVID-19-related issues. (Dec. 21 in Nashville, Dec. 22 in Dallas, Dec. 27 vs Minnesota, Dec. 29 vs Chicago). They will all be rescheduled, likely in February.

The Jets requested Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks be pushed back due to new public health orders announced Monday afternoon which will limit attendance at the downtown rink to just 250 spectators until at least Jan. 11. At this point, Winnipeg’s next two home games on Jan. 8 (Seattle) and Jan. 10 (Minnesota) will likely be held in an empty building, barring any further changes.

Winnipeg’s next game on the docket is Friday in Calgary, the start of a four-game road trip which also includes stops in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver.

“I look at the goals we gave up last game guys driving the net, hitting the back side. That’s something that we want to work on from a defending standpoint and also from an offensive standpoint, we want to make sure we’re getting our guys to the net,” said Lowry.

“And you look at goals that are being scored with traffic, pucks going to the net, bodies getting to the net and that’s something that we’ll continue to work on.”

Lowry was no stranger to that spot during his playing days, as the veteran of 1,084 games scored many of his 164 goals parked on the doorstep, using his big frame to buy himself time and space. Although hockey has changed considerably since he hung up the blades in 2004, the real estate in front of the opposing goaltender is more valuable than ever.

The masked men have never been bigger and more skilled, and beating them with a clean shot is nearly impossible. One just has to look at how many times the Jets have been burned this season by way of deflections, rebounds and second and third chance goals against for proof.

These are early days, with just two games and a handful of practices under Lowry’s watch, but it appears the players buy what the new coach is selling.

“I think this going to the net thing is non-negotiable with our group,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said Monday.

“It’s easy to play on the outside. You don’t get hit as much, you don’t get cross-checked as much, you don’t get slashed as much. It’s a harder game. But if we want to win, we have to do that. If you look at any team that does it, even you say the Tampa Bay Lightning, two-time champs, they’re skilled, but they have a lot of guys in the lineup, a lot of them willing to do it (had audio issues here). That’s why they win. It opens up time and space for the players.”

Schmidt was a member of the 2016-17 Washington Capitals, a deep, highly-skilled club that came up short of their Stanley Cup goal. After joining the Vegas Golden Knights the following season in the expansion draft, Schmidt watched his old team down his new one to win their first-ever championship. And one major change stood out.

“When I played in Washington, some guys did (go to the net), some guys wouldn’t. The next year, it seemed like every guy did, and it makes it that much more difficult,” said Schmidt.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS "But everybody has to have an understanding that we do need — we need pucks to get to the net and we need bodies to get to the net," coach Dave Lowry said Monday.

“When you get guys to buy in, you realize how much it means and how much more time and space. Yeah, you may not be the hero on the play, but trust me, your linemates and your teammates are going to be awfully grateful for it. And I think that’s what we have to understand. It may not be you getting on the stat sheet, but that still doesn’t go unnoticed amongst the guys, among people in hockey. Something that is not easy to do, but guys that can do it and can get there and can create more time and space, guys love playing with them and that’s the reason why I think you have to do it and it’s just going to create a lot more for our group.”

Schmidt said three of the best in the game at doing this are Dallas forward Joe Pavelski, Washington’s Tom Wilson and current Jets teammate Paul Stastny.

“The way that I look at our forwards, we have a lot of guys who can make plays, a lot of guys who can do things with the puck that would allow time and space. When you put someone at the net, and you get someone there and you push us as defenceman, you push us back into your own goaltender or into the zone, it’s much more difficult to get your gaps closed in,” Schmidt explained.

“And vice-versa, if you don’t do that, we’re allowed to stay up and play guys and be tighter on players and it just eliminates a lot more time and space. It’s a factor of getting someone to the net so it pushes the defence back and allows our skilled guys and our players, all of our forwards and our defencemen as well, more time. If you looks at the goals that are happening around the league, it has to happen that way. And that’s, I think, you realize how important that is for our group in order to do that and in order to be successful.”

Schmidt believes it truly can be a case of practice makes perfect, along with a bit of mind over matter mixed in.

“You know, it’s funny. It’s not entirely hard to be good at it, but it’s very hard to be great at it. I could go net-front. f I can do it, a d-man can do it, then anyone can do it. But it’s hard to be great at it, because it takes a subtle art of sometimes not going too fast, but not going too slow. Put yourself in a position where your stick’s available, but also you’re kind of boxing the defenceman out as you’re going to the net. It’s an art. There are guys that are really good at it,” said Schmidt.

“But it’s not rocket science. The teams that are winning do more of it. Your skill and things like that will take over after.”

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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