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This article was published 27/12/2018 (234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TYPICAL Winnipeg Jets fans likely had a load of NHL victories on their wish list, and the Central Division hockey team showered them with gifts during the initial stages of the 2018-19 campaign.
The focus and energy now shift toward the second-half grind.
The Jets emerge today from the holiday break with a gaudy 24-10-2 record and a firm grasp of not only first place in the division, but also top spot in the Western Conference. Winnipeg’s two dozen triumphs are third-most in the league, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (28) and Toronto Maple Leafs (25), a couple of clubs dominating the Eastern Conference.
The Jets are four points clear of the Nashville Predators in the Central with a game in hand, and have a three-point edge on the Calgary Flames in the conference race. Calgary (22-12-3), one of surprises of the season, battles Winnipeg at 7 p.m. at Bell MTS Place, one of 13 games tonight as the NHL campaign resumes.
Winnipeg has won two straight, including a 1-0 victory over the host Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit had yet another stellar outing, this time in his home province, turning aside 40 drives to post his first shutout with his new team.
Last season, the Jets endured instability in the backup role behind starter Connor Hellebuyck, but Brossoit has been nothing short of a revelation two-fifths of the way through 2018-19.
He’s the gift that keeps on giving. There’s no way the organization could have known with any amount of certainty what it was getting in the former Edmonton Oilers farmhand when he was inked to a bargain-basement one-year, US$650,000 contract on July 1.
Brossoit, born in Port Alberni, B.C., but raised in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, is 8-0-1 in nine starts this season. He was also on the hook for a 6-3 defeat Nov. 21 in Calgary — a goofy, unwarranted blemish on his record, as the Jets were already down 3-1 at the 11:35 mark of the opening period when he replaced Hellebuyck.
Brossoit’s eight wins equal the sum of Winnipeg’s backup goalies — Steve Mason (five), Michael Hutchinson (two) and Eric Comrie (one) — last year.
The 25-year-old netminder owns a tidy 2.11 goals-against average and glitzy .939 save percentage (SV%). Head coach Paul Maurice can turn qualm-free to his backup any time he wants, an enviable position as he carefully monitors the workload of his US$6.166-million-a-year starter.
His steady play was timely, as it bought Hellebuyck the chance to shake off some early-season rust and rediscover his Vezina Trophy-calibre form.
Brossoit is 4-0-0 in December, blocking 151 of 160 shots for a .944 S% over the month.
Indeed, he’s done more than enough to be acknowledged — in this space, at least — as the Jets’ best present to supporters.
Here’s a few other welcomed gifts that deserved consideration:
Winnipeg’s top centre, Mark Scheifele, seemingly has a hand in each and every victory the team generates. He has 22 goals, including five game-winners, to go with 27 assists, and he’s firmly entrenched among the NHL’s elite with a club-leading 49 points.
Just before the break, he ripped the winner against Vancouver with just 92 seconds left in the third to give the Jets their 11th win in 13 games.
He also has three overtime goals, and has already been named a star of the week three times this season. The partnership he’s forged with right-winger Blake Wheeler, who shares the league’s assist lead (43), has caused torment for opposing netminders.
If he steers clear of injuries, he’ll shatter his previous best point total of 82, set two years ago. And if the Jets maintain their altitude in the NHL standings, the 25-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., simply must be in the Hart Trophy conversation as the NHL’s most valuable player.
Jets right-winger Patrik Laine had an inauspicious start to the season, scoring just three goals in a dozen games. Then, the 20-year-old Finn caught fire.
Laine fired 18 goals in 12 games in November, the most by any NHL player in one calendar month since March 1994 when Vancouver Canucks superstar Pavel Bure notched 19 in 16 games.
Laine began the month with a hat-trick Nov. 1 in Helsinki as part of the 2018 NHL Global Series. He recorded another Nov. 19 in Vancouver and less than a week later set a franchise record by scoring five goals in an 8-4 victory at the St. Louis Blues. And he did it on five shots. He became the first NHLer to score five goals in a game since Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen did it in February 2011.
Laine has just two goals in December and entered the break on a four-game goalless slide. Most visible has been a low exertion level, particularly in his defensive work, and that needs an immediate adjustment.
No other player in Jets 2.0 history has generated as much deep thought, water-cooler chatter, ebullience and angst from fans as Dustin Byfuglien.
The giant of a man, in the third year of a five-contract extension that pays him US$7.6 million annually, might just be putting in the finest season of his 13-year pro career.
Even at 33, he has shown no depreciation in terms of his skills, smarts and physicality. In 30 games, he has just four goals but has helped set up another 24 — good for 28 points — and remains an integral piece of the NHL’s best power play.
Byfuglien’s the runaway team leader in ice time per game (24 minutes, 38 seconds), with overt signs of fatigue rarely noticeable. Most gratifying for the club, however, is that his effectiveness is rooted in the overall soundness of his defensive game. He and Ben Chiarot have an alliance that has emphasized his strengths.
During the Jets’ terrific playoff run last spring, he was at his most engaged since hockey fans here first got acquainted with him in 2011-12. And he has not let the foot off the gas. He can still wade into a scrum and toss around multiple players like they’re hollow mannequins.
Right now, the Jets and their followers are getting the very best out of this inimitable powerhouse.
Readers who believe in the jinx factor should skip this section.
Winnipeg has, for the most part, been an able-bodied squad, avoiding serious injury troubles through 36 games.
Up front, Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault and Brandon Tanev have been healthy since the season-opener, while defencemen Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot and netminders Hellebuyck and Brossoit have suited up for every game.
Byfuglien was shelved twice with separate injuries but missed only six games, defenceman Josh Morrissey was hurt for two games, while blue-liners Dmitry Kulikov (12) and Joe Morrow (eight) were out longer.
Forwards Adam Lowry (upper body) and Andrew Copp (concussion symptoms) were on the mend prior to the Christmas break but could rejoin the team this morning. Copp's situation has been the most distressing. He's missed a total of 13 games with the third concussion of his career. Lowry was absent for games in San Jose and Vancouver.
The Jets, like all teams with lofty playoff aspirations, need that good-health karma to continue.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Thursday, December 27, 2018 at 6:26 AM CST: Adds section on players' health