Nathan Beaulieu isn't one to agonize over where his Winnipeg Jets find themselves in the standings on any given day. But with an NHL season unlike any before, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jets veteran defenceman admitted his routine has changed this year.
"I'm probably checking them more this year than in the past... because every night it seems like it's changing. The biggest thing is not trying to lose two in a row this season," Beaulieu said after Tuesday's practice. "You got to rebound and get back on the horse, but saying that I'm not checking (the standings), I'd be lying to you. I definitely have been following it, because it's going to come right down to the wire as everyone expected this season."
The Jets welcome Beaulieu's former team in the Montreal Canadiens to town Thursday, in what will be the first of back-to-back games in Winnipeg this week between the two clubs. The Jets (11-6-1) currently sit in third place in the all-Canadian division, behind the Toronto Maple Leafs (14-4-2) and Edmonton Oilers (12-8-0), both of whom have played two more games than Winnipeg. Behind them in the standings, in fourth, is Montreal, with a 9-5-3 record, followed by the Calgary Flames (9-9-1), Vancouver Canucks (8-12-2) and the lowly Ottawa Senators (5-14-1).
Put it all together and the Jets have a major opportunity to push themselves up the standings with a pair of wins against Montreal, right into second place — at least point percentage-wise — and on the heels of the Maple Leafs for top spot in the division.
But that, of course, is easier said than done.
"The biggest thing is not trying to lose two in a row this season." – Nathan Beaulieu
There's not a lot of familiarity between the two sides. The Canadiens are the only team the Jets have yet to play this year, meaning the scouting report will have to rely mostly on how the Canadiens have played other teams this season.
Montreal has taken on a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona this year. They were one of the hottest teams to come out of the gate, earning points in seven straight games to start the season and boasting a 7-1-2 record in their first 10. Since then, however, the Canadiens have lost five of their last seven games.
The Canadiens are a bigger, stronger and faster team that previous years, built on depth up front and led by a formidable crew on defence that includes the likes of Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Jeff Petry and former Jet Ben Chiarot. It also helps to have arguably the best goaltender tandem in starter Carey Price and backup Jake Allen.
"We haven't really gone over them too much in preparation, but just from watching them play, their back end's pretty heavy. I mean Weber, Edmundson, Chiarot. Petry's a great skater but also heavy. So, they got some meat on that blue line," Jets forward Andrew Copp said. "Their forwards are kind of what they've been: They're really fast, they're quick on it, they got great sticks. Not necessarily as physical but now with (Josh) Anderson coming in, it makes them a lot more physical up front. They got some depth. Obviously always with Price in net, they're going to be hard to put pucks past. I feel like they're a top to bottom depth type team and we're going to need to be on our A-game, for sure, the next two."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted Tuesday the Jets, the way they're made up, tend to struggle against teams like the Canadiens, who are among the fastest clubs through the neutral zone. They also have strong puck possession numbers, among the best in the entire NHL.
As evidence, Maurice pointed to the last time the Jets played the Canadiens at home. They lost 6-2 and surrendered 48 shots on net.
"I feel like they're a top to bottom depth type team and we're going to need to be on our A–game, for sure, the next two." – Andrew Copp
"Analytically, these guys are a really good team. Especially if you’re running this off shot volume and quality of the shots. They get to the slot, they don’t give up much in their own end and they’re very, very consistent with their game. Their penalty killing was absolutely on fire at the start of the year," Maurice said. "They knock an awful lot of pucks down and I think they’re more in a position to be physical now this year than they have been in the past. They hunt pucks down, there’s no place to slow down the game or find easy transition on them."
In the midst of a two-game winning streak, the Jets would like nothing more than to catch fire. With just a 56-game regular season this year, a notable run would go a long way to securing a playoff spot.
Putting together win steaks, though, haven't exactly been the norm this season. Whether it's because teams are only playing within the division, meaning it's easier to study and game plan from game to game, or just pure coincidence, long winning steaks are few and far between.
"It becomes more and more difficult to go on a run as you see teams over and over again, and those teams are reasonably talent–even." – Paul Maurice
The Tampa Bay Lightning have the longest streak of wins this season, at six, while a few other teams have locked in at five, including a current — and somewhat surprising — run by the L.A. Kings. In the all-Canadian division, only Toronto has won four straight games this year, and they've done it twice.
"There just aren’t long streaks going on. I think L.A. has five going on right now and that’s a big deal. It doesn’t feel like that’s going on around the league where a team can get really hot. If the teams are fairly even, the more you see them the more even it becomes," Maurice said. "If there is a team clearly not in the class of everybody else and you play them three or four times in a row, maybe you go on a run. It becomes more and more difficult to go on a run as you see teams over and over again, and those teams are reasonably talent-even."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.