The phrase "same old, same old" doesn’t apply when the Winnipeg Jets line up opposite NHL teams from within their own division.
There’s been nothing monotonous about the Jets’ pace of play against five of six Central Division rivals this season, and Tuesday’s 5-1 home-ice triumph over the mostly disengaged Dallas Stars was another up-tempo, high-event performance for the hosts.
Winnipeg is 2-1-0 in three meetings with Dallas this season. Neither side has much time to ruminate about the result, with a rematch scheduled for Thursday night at America Airlines Center.
The Jets are now 5-2-0 against division rivals.
Under the NHL’s current schedule format, the Jets play within the division 26 times, slightly less than a third of their 82-game slate. They’ve hooked up just once with each of the Minnesota Wild (5-2W), Colorado Avalanche (4-0L), Nashville Predators (2-1W) and Chicago Blackhawks (3-2W in OT), and have yet to face the reigning Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues.
They still have 19 divisional meetings remaining, including two against Dallas, three against Minnesota, Nashville and Colorado and four against Chicago and division-leading St. Louis. Positive results in those games are sacred, Jets forward Kyle Connor said Tuesday morning following the game-day skate.
"They’re such big points and they add up, whether it’s two in March or two now. They’re huge for the standings," Connor said. "But moreso, just to set the tone. Obviously, you’ve gotta go through the Central Division to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and knowing what type of game it’s gonna be over the years, I think we’ve done pretty well against Central Division teams.
"That’s what rivalry is all about, that’s why the format is the way it is. You play a team that many times... there’s gonna be some hatred, some bad blood."
Stockpiling points against those familiar foes has proven achievable in the past for Winnipeg. During the 2017-18 campaign, the Jets went 15-9-2 against teams in the division en route to a 52-20-10 record, their best regular-season finish in franchise history. Winnipeg followed that up with playoff series wins over Minnesota and Nashville before bowing to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final.
Last year, the Jets dipped to 13-12-1 against their Central brethren and worked their way into the playoffs before getting dumped by St. Louis in the opening round.
The Blues have picked up right where they left off, going 18-5-6 to lead the Western Conference. There’s a gap between the Blues and a grouping of the Jets, Avs and Stars — while the Preds, Wild and Blackhawks are chasing.
Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey admitted he rarely goes to bed without knowing the complete picture in the Central.
"Most days, I try to see what’s going on around the league, see the highlights, see the standings. That’s something I’m definitely interested in," he said. "It’s close every year. But it just seems within our division and this year’s teams it’s really close, and those (19) games are going to have a lot to say about where we finish.
"Look at where St. Louis is at the top of the division, right through the middle and to the bottom, it’s all pretty tight. So, you win a couple against a team and you can really make up some ground or increase your lead."
With the surging Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins in pursuit, the Metropolitan just might have wrested the "toughest division in hockey" moniker from the Central.
That said, Jets head coach Paul Maurice says there’s a predictability to a Central battle that makes it uniquely demanding.
"The familiarity... gives you a really good idea of what the game’s gonna look like. You play these teams so often, you have a good idea of what it’s going to take to be good. A lot of powerful, heavy teams in the Central. Physical, fast, very competitive on pucks, no easy ice. Gaps will be hard," Maurice said. "(It feels) as close to a playoff game as you see in the regular season."
Luca Sbisa, the most recent addition to the organization, is still getting acclimatized to the rapid pace of the division.
"For me personally, I’m a guy that hasn’t had a chance to play in this division, so it’s a learning process. What I’ve seen so far is every team plays fast and the compete level is really high," said Sbisa, a veteran of 500 games in the NHL split between the Atlantic, Pacific and Metropolitan divisions. The Jets claimed him off waivers in late October.
"It’s a balance of everything. They play quick and they play physical. It’s a good mix of everything. They’re hard-fought games. There’s a lot of bad blood floating around."
Indeed, familiarity breeds contempt — and respect — in the Central, Morrissey said.
"We play them in the pre-season, regular season and playoffs — and when it’s all said and done two or three years later, it seems like we’ve played Nashville and Minnesota a million times," he said. "That’s why the intensity ramps up and the rivalry ramps up."
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 Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 12:22 AM CST: Updates story.