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This article was published 26/2/2021 (278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Like two ships passing in the night, the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens are heading in very different directions these days.
Things are going swimmingly for Winnipeg, winners of three straight and four of the last five to surge up the standings. Not so much for the Canadiens, who are sinking fast after a solid start to their season.
Look around the country and you’ll see similar trends, and plenty of separation, starting to occur. Toronto and Edmonton, who will meet for three straight starting Saturday night, are both sizzling. Calgary and Vancouver have gone ice-cold. And re-building Ottawa seems destined to finish dead-last, despite a surprising recent run.
But here’s the thing about this unique NHL season, where all 56 games are entirely within the division. The teams seemingly sitting pretty right now in a playoff position aren’t getting too comfortable, just as the teams they’re looking down on shouldn’t be hitting the panic button just yet.
"I look at the schedule and figure the season starts at the end of February, early March. That’s when this thing gets going because this next layer of games that we play, our schedule is heavier than other teams who’ve played more games. And if you’ve played three or four games fewer, if that’s the next month, you’ve got a big cost," Jets coach Paul Maurice said Friday following his team’s optional practice at Bell MTS Place.
"There’s a big cost coming up to having played fewer games. So the season starts, basically, now, and I don’t look at any spread any team has as insurmountable."
The top four teams in the division make the playoffs, which will also be contested within the division for the first two rounds starting in mid-May. (One plays four, two plays three, then the two winners meet).
Winnipeg, at 12-6-1, sits seven points behind Toronto (with two games in hand) and three in arrears of Edmonton (with three games in hand). They’re also three ahead of Montreal, who hold down the final playoff spot. Calgary (five ahead, two games in hand), Vancouver (seven ahead, five games in hand) and Ottawa (10 ahead, three games in hand) are all out of the picture, for now.
The Jets could increase their cushion with another clean win over Montreal on Saturday night, coming on the heels of Thursday’s 6-3 comeback victory. The Habs, with just one win in the last seven, will once again try to get new coach Dominique Ducharme his first victory after he replaced Claude Julien earlier this week.
Regardless of the result, nobody around here is putting their feet up or getting comfortable. In fact, objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear.
"For teams that go through a rough stretch, there’s 100 per cent a chance of getting back. Especially this year, you’re playing against your own division every single game. So it can turn really quick. Also for the teams that are doing well. So you have to keep your foot on the gas the whole season, every single game," said forward Nikolaj Ehlers.
"Definitely, everyone has a chance no matter how many points they’re behind or ahead. It can go both ways, so you want to keep that consistency in your game, you want to give yourself a chance to win every single game."
One thing the Jets have been doing consistently lately is falling behind, only to come back to win. They are an NHL best 6-2-0 when trailing after 20 minutes, including the last two wins over Montreal and Vancouver in which they shrugged off 2-0 first period deficits.
A big part of that is a potent offence which is average 3.63 goals per game, third-best in the NHL behind only Edmonton and Tampa Bay. There are currently 12 players who have hit double-digits in goals this season — and Winnipeg is the only team with three of them.
Mark Scheifele has 11, while Ehlers and Kyle Connor have 10. Those three, along with captain Blake Wheeler who has six points in his past two games, are all currently in the Top 25 of NHL scoring.
"I think we always knew we had a lot of skill on this team. A lot of guys that can put the puck in the net, make plays. I think we always kind of knew that. Guys are buying in, guys are doing the right things and when you do the right things, you’re going to get rewarded," said Scheifele, who has scored in six straight games and has a career-best 11 game point streak.
Scheifele admitted Friday he’s been watching closely what other players around the league have been doing this season. Seeing players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews running wild has served as an extra motivator for him.
"It definitely pushes you to do more. Obviously I’ve been watching a lot of the Canadian Division. I’ve learned a lot for myself from watching those guys play. I know definitely from watching Connor and Auston play, you pick up little subtleties in the plays they’re making, the little passes they’re making, the way Auston is shooting the puck — all those little things," said Scheifele.
"Dale (Hawerchuk) always told me it’s a free education. You get to learn from them, you get to pick up little things they do and try it in practice the next day. It’s part of that learning. It’s learning from the best players in the world and trying to add that to your game."
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.