Call it the Central nervous system — Jets may be in first but division foes are closing fast
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/01/2018 (1897 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets return from their bye week today — and not a moment too soon. Because the footsteps they were hearing behind them prior to going their separate ways last weekend have grown into a full-blown stampede.
Just nine points separated first (Jets) from last (Chicago Blackhawks) in the ultra-competitive Central Division heading into Thursday night’s action, which is by far the closest margin of the four divisions.
Sure, Winnipeg continued to occupy top spot in the division by the slimmest of margins (although the Nashville Predators could have overtaken them with a win against the lowly Arizona Coyotes Thursday night). But they are also just six points ahead of the Minnesota Wild, who wouldn’t even have an invite to Lord Stanley’s annual spring fling if the season ended today.
Not exactly much breathing room there. Which is why the Jets will need to take flight immediately as they begin a stretch of four games in six days Saturday afternoon in Calgary against the Flames, followed by a quick home date Sunday night against the Vancouver Canucks and then two tough road games next Tuesday and Thursday in San Jose and Anaheim, respectively.
There’s just so little margin for error, and they’ll need to quickly find a way to snap out of the funk that saw them drop two straight games to division rivals heading into the break. An extended slump could end up being extremely costly and undo so much of the good work from earlier in the season.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice and his staff spent the past several days going over video from their first 46 games of the season and trying to identify some areas they can improve upon heading into the final 36. No doubt their findings will be much of the focus of today’s practice before the team boards a flight to Alberta.
The Free Press spent some time Thursday analyzing the task ahead for the Jets. You may want to sit down for this.
By every measure, the Central is the most powerful division in the NHL. Just getting in the top three, and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it, is a major task. Finishing fourth or fifth in the division is playing with fire, because there’s no guarantee that will get you one of the two wild-card spots. Those could both end up going to Pacific teams, who have the luxury of a few lesser-light teams they can beat up on.
Not so in the Central, where every team appears to be a force.
Consider that all seven squads are at least five games over the NHL’s version of .500 (wins versus regulation losses), with the not-so-lowly Blackhawks currently sitting last in the division with a 22-17-6 record. Only the Metropolitan is in the same boat, with the Carolina Hurricanes trailing the pack at 20-17-8. The Pacific has three sub-.500 teams, while the Atlantic has a whopping five.
Overall, Central teams are a combined 67 games over .500. The Metropolitan is next at 53 games over. Pacific teams are 28 games over, while Atlantic teams are 23 games over.
Goal differential really tells the tale in a dramatic way. The seven Central teams have a combined plus-102 goal differential, with every team being on the positive side. No other division can make such a claim. Metropolitan teams are second-best at minus 11. Pacific teams are minus 41, and Atlantic teams are minus 50.
Winnipeg does have one advantage over the teams chasing them in that they still have 21 games remaining at Bell MTS Place, where they boast the league’s second-best home record. That’s tied with Nashville for the most home dates left in the division. Every other team has either 17, 18 or 19 home games left.
Winnipeg’s 15 remaining road games are the fewest in the Central, with everyone else having between 18 and 22.
The Jets still have a dozen games left within the division, and those contests will take on extreme importance. The St. Louis Blues have the most left in the Central with 15, while Dallas has the fewest with just nine.
But Winnipeg faces a big challenge in who they have left on their schedule. The Jets still have 21 games remaining against teams currently sitting in a playoff spot. Only Chicago, at 22, has more. The Minnesota Wild have 21, the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche each have 20, while Nashville and St. Louis have the fewest with 19 and 17, respectively.
Hold on to your hats, folks — this race is likely going right down to the wire.
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.