May 19, 2019

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Jets' final stretch to test endurance, resilience

PHILADELPHIA — Holidays are over and it’s back to the grind for the Winnipeg Jets, who can forget about any downtime for the next 10 weeks.

And the NHL club has designs on extending that hectic stretch into June.

The Jets (31-15-2) return from a weeklong break owning a share of first place in the Central Division with the Nashville Predators (30-18-4), who won their past two games before getting some time off now.

Winnipeg has played the fewest games (48) in the Western Conference and has four games in hand on its fierce rivals from the Tennessee capital.

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PHILADELPHIA — Holidays are over and it’s back to the grind for the Winnipeg Jets, who can forget about any downtime for the next 10 weeks.

And the NHL club has designs on extending that hectic stretch into June.

Paul Maurice will be back at work tonight.</p></p>

Paul Maurice will be back at work tonight.

The Jets (31-15-2) return from a weeklong break owning a share of first place in the Central Division with the Nashville Predators (30-18-4), who won their past two games before getting some time off now.

Winnipeg has played the fewest games (48) in the Western Conference and has four games in hand on its fierce rivals from the Tennessee capital.

It all sounds pretty good, right?

The flip side is a jammed schedule between now and the end of the regular season. The team plays 34 games over the next 69 days.

Players are back from the beaches of Florida and Mexico, the golf courses of Scottsdale or, in the case of defenceman Josh Morrissey, his couch in frigid Winnipeg.

Time to punch back in.

"The break was nice, just to recover from the first half of the season," winger Mathieu Perreault said after a team practice Sunday in downtown Philly.

"We won’t practise much. It will just be play a game, rest up, play, rest up, play. For me, I love it that way."

Tonight, the Jets face the Philadelphia Flyers, one of the league’s weakest squads, at Wells Fargo Center and then head into Boston to battle the always tough-as-nails Bruins Tuesday night at TD Garden.

The Jets return home to host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday.

All but centre Mark Scheifele and right-winger Blake Wheeler — who participated in the all-star weekend in San Jose, Calif. — and injured skaters Dustin Byfuglien, Nikolaj Ehlers and Ben Chiarot had seven days off to rest and recover from whatever was ailing them.

In their final contest before the break, a fatigued Jets squad showed no push-back for 40 minutes in Dallas, rallied in the third period but eventually fell 4-2 to the Stars on Jan. 19. In his post-game chat, Winnipeg bench boss Paul Maurice basically said the heart was there but the legs couldn’t get it done.

Based on the 31 previous Jets victories — dozens of high-calibre performances — it’s a tough view to debunk.

"We needed that break. We had a bunch of guys that we felt had nagging injuries, right on the cusp of becoming problems, that kind of all got cleared up. But they were just over-use injuries. So we needed the break. It came at the right time," Maurice said.

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck was the best player in a Jets jersey in Dallas and was brilliant two nights before in Nashville in a 5-1 victory over the Preds.

While his start to the campaign wasn’t nearly up to anyone’s expectations, including the 2017-18 Vezina Trophy finalist’s own high standards, he seems to be catching fire at just the right time for a club with serious Stanley Cup aspirations.

His back-up, Laurent Brossoit, has been superb in limited duty. And fans clamouring to see more of the former Edmonton Oilers farmhand will get their wish down the stretch.

That begins tonight when Brossoit — with the glitzy stats, 10-1-1 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .943 save percentage — faces the Flyers

"We’ve got a heavy workload, we’re going to need both of them. We’ve got some travel involved in there, too... it will be a slightly different split," said Maurice.

Brossoit deserves more work and he’s excited to get it.

"After the bye week, I’ve been looking forward to this. You kind of look ahead on the schedule. Because of Finland, that trip, two games in nine days, we knew at some point in the season we were going to have a condensed schedule," he said. "And I knew... the second half of the season there’ll be a lot of opportunity for me and I’m just going to keep doing what I do and hopefully can continue to contribute.

He said he’s buoyed the trust of his teammates and the coaching staff.

"It’s a huge vote of confidence being able to get put in consistently and even in a game like Vegas (a 43-save effort in a 4-1 win over the Golden Knights on Jan. 15). It’s a boost of confidence for me when they feel they trust me in the net for games like that," he said.

One guy who likely didn’t relish the break was fourth-liner Brendan Lemieux, who scored a pair of goals against Nashville and a single, his sixth in 32 games this season, in Dallas.

His offensive production has been a bonus, although Lemieux was a scorer in junior with the Barrie Colts and Windsor Spitfire and he proved he can put the puck in the net at the pro level with the Manitoba Moose.

"It’s more or a line thing (with Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton). Our line’s confident. We feel good and we’re excited to get back at it," he said. "Being able to get on the ice more, being trusted with more ice and being able to contribute offensively has been good."

Combine that with a nasty streak and the 22-year-old son of former NHL great Claude Lemieux could be a key performer during the gruelling drive to the post-season. His grit won’t hurt against three Eastern Conference opponents this week.

Lemieux is amped to play the Flyers but admitted he comes to Philly carrying some baggage.

"Philly’s always got that cool breed that I like in a hockey team," he said. "For me, I was drafted here (by Buffalo in 2014). I had to sit through the first round and I remember how miserable that was. I had to come back the Saturday morning, so I got some memories here and I’m not too fond of all of them.

"But I’ve never played here so it’s gonna be fun."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
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).

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