Make-or-break stretch coming up for Jets

Inconsistent team needs a bunch of Ws and fast

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We interrupt the holiday festivities with a burning question — just who exactly are these Winnipeg Jets?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/12/2019 (1070 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We interrupt the holiday festivities with a burning question — just who exactly are these Winnipeg Jets?

Are they the team that went into St. Paul last weekend and delivered season’s beatings to a red-hot Minnesota squad? Is it the one that spilled eggnog all over itself two nights later on home ice in a lopsided loss to Montreal?

Consistently inconsistent might be the best way to describe their erratic play of late, as the Jets entered the three-day Christmas break with just one win in their last four games, and two in the past six. True to form, both of those victories were impressive routs — 6-0 over the Wild, and 7-3 over the Flyers, sprinkled in among head-scratching losses to lightweights such as Detroit and Chicago.

After beating the Minnesota Wild 6-0, the Jets stunk up Bell MTS Place in a 6-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

For a team that always talks about staying in the fight, they’ve absorbed some awfully big punches lately, while landing a few haymakers of their own.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised, given a rash of key injuries (Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Copp) have challenged their forward depth, and goalies Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit, along with the rag-tag defence in front of them, have sprung a few leaks. There’s not a whole lot of room for error right now.

Coach Paul Maurice said a few days away from the rink couldn’t have come at a better time for his club, but as NHL business returns to normal, there will be no easing back into work for the Jets, the way many of us typically do following a seemingly non-stop feast of food, family and friends.

Don’t look now, but Winnipeg’s schedule over the next couple weeks might best be described as hellacious, including a home-and-home set with defending champion St. Louis beginning Friday night at Bell MTS Place and ending Sunday afternoon at Enterprise Center.

That would be the 24-8-6 Blues, winners of six straight games who sit on top of the Western Conference and are showing no signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. When we last saw Craig Berube’s group up close, they were disposing of the Jets in the first round of the playoffs last April, including winning all three games here in Winnipeg. They appear to be as dangerous as ever.

After that it’s a New Year’s Eve date in Denver with the soaring Colorado Avalanche, a one-game return to Winnipeg to face the surging Maple Leafs, followed by a four-game trip to Minnesota, Montreal, Toronto and Boston.

The St. Louis Blues have won six straight games and are showing no signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. They are in town to face the Jets on Friday. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

That’s six of the next eight games on the road, with seven of those opponents currently in a playoff spot.

All of which is to say things could quickly go south here for the 21-14-2 Jets, who currently sit third in the Central Division but don’t exactly have much breathing room. Dallas is tied in points, with one extra game played, and hold the first wildcard spot, one point up on Calgary. Nashville is two points back of both the Jets and Stars, but sit outside the playoff bubble. Minnesota is only three points behind Winnipeg and Dallas.

The Jets will need to find a way to get back into the win column, early and often, as they come out of this break if they want to stay above the line. And it’s certainly not going to be easy, but I’m here to tell you there are some reasons for optimism.

First up is the pending return of Perreault, who was concussed nearly two weeks ago on a dirty hit. Provided nothing flared up over the past few days, he’s on the verge of returning to the lineup. He will likely return to his spot on the third line with Adam Lowry, helping to take some of the strain off the top two lines, which have been asked to carry an even bigger load lately.

Copp and Little, along with defencemen Dmitry Kulikov, are all out longer-term, but could be ready following the All-Star break in late January.

Then there’s Hellebuyck, who was last seen kicking aside all 31 Minnesota shots he faced last Saturday. It was a terrific and much-needed outing, coming off four straight sub-par games in which it looked like the heavy workload was catching up to Winnipeg’s MVP so far this season. Hellebuyck was given the night off against the Canadiens, but expect to see plenty of the No. 1 netminder over the next couple weeks.

Mathieu Perreault should be back in the lineup soon and return to his spot on the third line with Adam Lowry, helping to take some of the strain off the top two lines. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t start the next six games, and seven of the next eight, especially with Brossoit struggling of late in his cameo appearances. The backup likely doesn’t see the crease again until one of the back-to-back games in Toronto or Boston on Jan. 8 or Jan. 9. Hellebuyck continuing his Vezina-like form would give the Jets a fighting chance in every game, no matter the opponent.

How about Patrik Laine, who appears to have remembered that he’s a bonafide NHL sniper with one of the most lethal shots in the sport. He’s scored five times in the past five games, including a couple with wicked wrist shots that Alex Stalock and Carey Price had no chance on. Laine already has as many goals in December (7) as he did in October and November combined, and his total would actually be higher if not for two tallies that have been called back by successful offside challenges.

As we’ve seen with Laine in the past, he alone can be a difference maker, and a return to his previous goal-scoring form would be most welcome. His all-around game has improved significantly this season, including his defensive coverage and playmaking abilities, but lighting the lamp is his specialty. He’s really starting to feel it.

Last, but certainly not least, is the Dustin Byfuglien situation. As we’ve reported, the veteran defencemen is now working in conjunction with the Jets as he rehabilitates from ankle surgery. It sounds as though he wishes to put off retirement and return, which could happen sometime in late February, if everything goes according to plan.

A healthy, well-rested and motivated Byfuglien could be a difference-maker, especially to a Winnipeg blue-line that has undergone no shortage of turnover. It could be the ultimate trade deadline acquisition — without having to give up any assets in the process.

Throw in the slick Sami Niku on the verge of returning to the Manitoba Moose following his latest injury — he could play for the AHL club as early as this weekend — and there is some added hope on the horizon, as a call-up to the big club would likely be in order if he can continue to progress.

Connor Hellebuyck should get plenty of action over the next couple of weeks. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Of course, it’s all about taking it one-day-at-a-time, and the Jets are about to be seriously tested in this next stretch. We’re going to learn a lot more about this club’s identity in the coming weeks.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

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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