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This article was published 15/3/2021 (220 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
To be the best, you have to beat the best. So where does that leave the Winnipeg Jets right now after taking five of six points from the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs?
A fair question, especially after Saturday’s near masterpiece at Scotiabank Arena in which a club many critics say can’t defend to save their lives put on a clinic in that department. Scoring goals, and stopping pucks, will never be issues with these highly-skilled Jets.
But if they can find a way to consistently clean up their own end, as they did for their best all-around 60 minutes of the year, then look out.
Unlike Tuesday’s 4-3 regulation win and Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss, in which goalie Connor Hellebuyck stood on his head, there can be no debate which was the better team in the finale of their three-game showdown, which the visitors took convincingly by a 5-2 score.
All the talk going into last week was how this was going to be a measuring stick mini-series for Winnipeg on a grand stage in the so-called Centre of the Hockey Universe. Based on how it played out, maybe we had it all wrong. What if the Jets are the real litmus test for the all-Canadian division?
Woah, woah, woah, McIntyre. Pump the brakes, you might be saying. Talk to me if and when they can bottle up that latest effort and string together a block of games where they look less "hair on fire" and more calm, cool and collected. Fair enough. And you’re not alone with that mindset.
As they got ready to board the charter home Saturday night, following a 3-1-1 road trip that improved their record to 8-2-1 over the last 11, the players themselves were pouring cold water over the suggestion this was anything more than two more points in the bank.
"I don’t know if we were necessarily trying to make a statement. We were just trying to finish a road trip on the right foot and I think we were happy with how the road trip went," said Adam Lowry.
Now 17-8-2, the Jets sport a winning record against every team north of the border except for the Edmonton Oilers, who they are 2-2-0 against. They are four points back of Toronto with three games in hand, and in a dead-heat in terms of winning percentage at .667. There are six more head-to-head meetings still to come this season.
Toronto, with just one win in their last six after falling 4-3 to Ottawa on Sunday night, is now off until Friday. With games on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the Jets could be looking down on the Maple Leafs by the end of the week if things continue to go their way.
Forget just trying to qualify for the playoffs, which is something few pundits had them doing when the puck dropped in mid-January. (For the record, I picked them to grab the fourth and final spot). Winning the division isn’t nearly as far-fetched as it once seemed.
"Obviously we’re very, very happy with the way this series went. But every game is a measuring stick. You can’t just rest on your laurels and think about just this game and this series. You’ve got to focus on continuing to get better," said Mark Scheifele.
"Those are the teams that have success in the playoffs, the teams that keep on ramping it up as the year goes on and we’ve got to use this great series and take it for the rest of the season and know when we’re at our best, what makes us the best team we can be and keep on working toward that."
That’s the right approach, and one that seems to permeate from the veteran leaders right on down to this team. It’s that same mentality, coach Paul Maurice said, which allowed his team to quickly recover from an absolute stinker in Montreal just nine days ago, a 7-1 loss where they seemingly couldn’t do anything right.
Winnipeg will get a chance to try and right that recent wrong when they host the fourth-place Habs for two straight starting Monday night at Bell MTS Place. Don’t look now, but that will officially mark the halfway point of this unique 56-game campaign.
With that in mind, let’s dish out some unofficial mid-season hardware based on what we’ve seen so far.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Hellebuyck. His last two games are Exhibit A and B. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has been terrific, now 12-7-2 with a 2.81 goals-against-average and .911 save percentage, while facing among the most high-danger chances in the NHL once again. It also helps that he can take the occasional night off, as he did Saturday, and the Jets seemingly don’t miss a beat as backup Laurent Brossoit (5-1-0, 2.48 GAA, .921 SV%) has been stellar in spot duty.
BEST FORWARD: A two-horse race that’s too close to call right now. Nikolaj Ehlers has taken his offensive game to another level, and he just had six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in the three games against Toronto. The defensive lapses are still there at times, but to his credit the maturing Ehlers is usually the first to fess up. He leads the club with 14 goals, which is tied for sixth in the NHL. Mark Scheifele (12 goals, 24 assists), is right there with him, routinely getting the tough assignments as the No. 1 centre going up against the likes of Matthews and McDavid.
BEST DEFENCEMAN: This one is a slam dunk. Neal Pionk is having a sensational season, now with 23 points (3 goals, 20 assists) in 27 games. Only five NHL blue-liners have more points. He’s anchored the top pairing with Derek Forbort, and I’d consider him, along with Scheifele and Ehlers, as the closest to Hellebuyck when it comes to naming an MVP. Not sure where the team would be without him on the back-end. What a steal the return from the Jacob Trouba trade is proving to be for Winnipeg.
MOST IMPROVED: If you want to put Pionk here, I’d take no issue. But to my eyes, Pionk was impressive last season as well, and this is just a continuation of that. To me, this is Mason Appleton all the way. What a player he’s become, with a career-best eight goals and seven assists through 27 games. He’s a perfect fit on the line with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp. Now the trick is to find a way to keep the 25-year-old protected in this summer’s Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
MOST ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Josh Morrissey just hasn’t looked himself. I believe he should be playing full-time with Dylan DeMelo, and I was happy to see Maurice made that switch early in Saturday’s game and finally put them together. Now keep that pair intact, not just for a period or a game, but for a stretch. They were rock-solid late last season, after DeMelo came over at the trade deadline, and should be given some room to grow here. Honourable mention to Pierre-Luc Dubois. The 22-year-old is going to be a hell of a player. We’ve seen glimpses of it so far. The more he gets settled after an eventful, staggered start to his season -- and I saw encouraging signs this past week from his line with Ehlers and Kyle Connor -- the more I suspect his true potential will be unleashed in his new hockey home.
BEST SURPRISES: Appleton’s emergence, Pionk’s continued growth and Brossoit’s brilliance would all qualify. Here’s two more: How about 33-year-old Mathieu Perreault’s play? Placed on waivers prior to the season, I’ve really liked the rejuvenated veteran’s game. And I’ve also been impressed with 35-year-old Paul Stastny, who is now up to nine goals (fourth-best on the team behind Ehlers, Scheifele and Connor) and looks to have an extra spring in his step playing wing on a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
AND LET’S GIVE SOME CREDIT TO: Kevin Cheveldayoff. The general manager, now in his 10th year, has put together a highly-competitive club. Sure, they have flaws, but show me a team that’s perfect. The forward group is as deep as any in the NHL, and that’s with the departures of Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic in a blockbuster early-season trade. The blue-line remains a work in progress -- Forbort was a solid free-agent signing -- and it will be fascinating to see if Cheveldayoff rewards this group for their fine work so far by making an addition or two prior to the Apr. 11 trade deadline with the idea of truly loading up for a run. Mattias Ekholm, anyone?
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.