Five keys for Jets in season’s second half

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/01/2018 (1780 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Are you having fun, yet?

The Winnipeg Jets have given fans plenty to get excited about with an impressive first half of the season that has them on top of the tough Central Division at 26-13-7 and among the National Hockey League’s heavyweights.

With players enjoying their bye week, it’s a good time to take stock of how they got where they are and where they’re headed.

Winnipeg Jets' Joel Armia (40) controls the puck against Minnesota Wild's Matt Cullen (7) in the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota won 4-1. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Sure, the Jets stumbled a bit last weekend with back-to-back regulation losses in Chicago and Minnesota, the latter a virtual no-show as they seemingly ran out of gas. But their overall body of work suggests it’s nothing to get too concerned about, at least right now, provided this little blip doesn’t become a trend.

“We won’t let it affect us. We’re playing too well,” veteran winger Mathieu Perreault told the Free Press last weekend. “We’ve got some injuries right now that we’re battling with. The five days (off) can be good. Some of those guys that are hurt are going to have time to take care and be back after the break.

“We’ll just have a break here, get a rest and go right back to where we were.”

Winnipeg has 36 games remaining on the schedule — and even a .500 showing in that span, which would mean a significant drop in play and production from what we’ve seen so far, should be enough to give locals a taste of playoff hockey for only the second time in the seven seasons since the NHL returned to town.

But plenty can happen between now and then and there is much work still be done; nobody hands out awards or plans parades in mid-January. So with that in mind, here are five key questions coming out of the break, along with a preview of some notable dates you might want to circle on the calendar.

1) Can they quickly return to form after a week at the beach?

As tough as their recent road-heavy schedule has been, things don’t immediately get any easier as the Jets try to return to the type of play that had been so successful prior to hitting the Windy City: a dominant power play, ferocious forechecking, balanced scoring and great goaltending. Winnipeg’s first game back is Saturday afternoon against the red-hot Calgary Flames, winners of seven straight. They’ll then fly home for a date with Vancouver the following night, before taking off for California, where games against the always-tough San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks await. Four games in six days, three of them on the road, in three different time zones. Not exactly a walk in the park. They’ll need more of the “survival” instincts coach Paul Maurice has been preaching recently.

2) Can they keep making hay at home?

Winnipeg has made Bell MTS Place a house of horrors for opponents thus far with a 16-3-1 record, the second-best home record in the league. And they’ll play 20 of their final 32 games on home ice, including 10 in a row coming out of the All-Star break later this month. The Jets could make life a lot easier for themselves if they take advantage of that part of their schedule. They should be well-rested, with plenty of time for practice. The risk, of course, is complacency seeping into their game. What might look like a positive could go south if they don’t stay focused.

3) Can they heal quickly and then stay healthy?

We know Mark Scheifele is on the road to recovery, with a return likely slotted some time during February. The sooner the Jets can get their No. 1 centre back, the better. It looks like injuries that kept Adam Lowry, Brandon Tanev and, most recently, Shawn Matthias out of the lineup are of the short-term variety, with Maurice indicating all three could be back by the weekend. That leaves the health of goalie Steve Mason as the one outstanding issue. Was he just battling a bit of a bug last weekend, forcing him to return to the city early? Or is he experiencing more concussion-type symptoms? Michael Hutchinson, banished to the minors earlier this year where he has excelled, might end up being a bigger part of this year’s fortunes than anyone could have imagined.

4) Can the young stars find another level?

Connor Hellebuyck has been sensational and is a deserving All-Star. Patrik Laine has already sniped 20. Best buddy Nikolaj Ehlers is right behind him with 19. Rookie Kyle Connor is up to 15. Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey are logging huge minutes against the opponent’s best every night. If some or all of these young stars can take another step in the second half, the Jets become an even more dangerous team, lightening the load for proven veterans such as Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, to name a few.

5) Will they be active at the trade deadline?

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has a pile of salary cap space to work with. The Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline could be an interesting one around these parts. On one hand, perhaps you don’t want to tinker too much with a roster that has produced some solid results to date. On the other hand, you can never have too much depth, especially if you are gearing up for what will hopefully be a long playoff run. Not to mention the unpredictability of injuries. There’s the old saying, “go big or go home,” and you wonder how much of a splash the Jets might make. If ever there was a year, this would seem to be it.

Winnipeg Jets Tyler Myers (57) Nikolaj Ehlers (27) and Joel Armia (40) celebrate a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

***

There are plenty of big games on the horizon that could go a long way to determining whether the Jets are true contenders or merely pretenders. Here’s our look at 10 of the key matchups ahead:

 

  • Saturday at Calgary: The Jets face a Flames team that has won seven straight. Both clubs are coming out of their bye week.
  • Jan. 30 vs. Tampa Bay: Winnipeg kicks off a 10-game homestand by hosting the NHL’s No. 1 team. What better way to make a statement to the rest of the league then with a good showing against the mighty Lightning?
  • Feb. 23 at St. Louis and Feb. 24 at Dallas: Back-to-backs don’t get much tougher than this. Will provide a big test for the Jets on the road, especially with every game so important in the Central Division.
  • March 12 at Washington and March 13 at Nashville: Another pivotal stretch that wraps up a six-game road trip. After facing the dangerous Capitals, Winnipeg has to regroup to take on the powerful Predators the following night.
  • March 18 vs. Dallas: Could be plenty on the line at this point of the year in their final meeting of the regular season.
  • March 25 vs Nashville: Ditto.
  • March 31 at Toronto: Laine vs. Matthews is always a treat. Throw in a Jets team looking to avenge a terrible opening-night loss to the Leafs and it could be a beauty.
  • April 7 vs. Chicago: The last of three games in the final 3 1/2 weeks of the season against the Blackhawks. And the final game of the regular season. Could have major playoff implications. Will they have already punched their ticket? Do they need to win to get in? Stay tuned.

 

Bottom line: buckle up, Jets fans. It should be quite the wild ride ahead.

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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