Which road leads to the Stanley Cup playoffs?

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This article was published 26/3/2015 (2443 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Which road leads to the Stanley Cup playoffs?

No need for a map. The Winnipeg Jets are headed the right way.

There are no guarantees, but the Jets' most likely chance for arriving at the post-season will almost surely require blocking the highway to their own net.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

There are no guarantees, but the Jets' most likely chance for arriving at the post-season will almost surely require blocking the highway to their own net.

It's called Defence Drive.

Of course there are no guarantees for future road conditions, but the most likely chance for arriving at the post-season will almost surely require blocking the highway to their own net.

Only eight games remain in the regular season, starting tonight at the MTS Centre when a four-game homestand begins against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m., TSN3, TSN1290).

For recent history, it's the franchise's opportunity of opportunities.

At 88 points in 74 games, the race is tight but the Jets are above the playoff line and bidding to play on after 82 games for the first time since 2007.

The aim and method -- to improve defensively -- has provided this opportunity.

Always a franchise in the bottom 10 in NHL defence, these Jets have bucked history to set up their big chance.

Look at the mile-markers along the way:

  • At the all-star break, the Jets were attracting attention after two consecutive months of being in a playoff spot and reaching status among the NHL's top five defensive teams, with a raw per-game goals-against average of 2.35.
  • A post-all-star-break detour set the team back, leading to some self-doubt and some nervous nights. In a 13-game span after Jan. 25, the Jets played possibly their worst hockey of the season, going 4-6-3 and giving up an average of 3.77 goals per game.
  • The most recent 13-game stretch is cause for optimism the Jets have figured out their issues and recaptured some of the effectiveness of the first 48 games.

Since Feb. 24, Winnipeg has surrendered just 2.15 goals per game (we've factored out a shootout goal, which isn't real hockey) with just 28 hockey goals against in 13 outings. Their record is 8-4-1 in this time and they are back in the league's top half in terms of defence.

The latest results even include Tuesday's disappointing conclusion in Vancouver, where the Canucks scored a 5-2 victory with a pair of empty-net goals in the final 35 seconds of the game. The padded 5-2 count looked good for the Canucks, but the Jets, on the second day of the back-to-back scenario, saw no reason to think their recent efficiency and doggedness would suddenly stop.

They had won the five previous games.

"That's the way we play," said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. "We can play that good, solid defensive game and every guy on this team is reliable in the defensive zone. And that's our identity.

"We play a hard, fast, physical game and I think it's a tough game to play against and it's the way we want to play every night."

It is surely the team's path to the post-season, forward Michael Frolik said.

"That's our mindset, that we want to have good defence and a tight gap in our game," Frolik said after the Vancouver game. We don't like to give free space. I think in the last five, six games we've been pretty good at that so we know it's working. We just need to keep going like that."

Frolik also pointed out one major factor that gave the Jets a better defensive chart in the last 13 games, as opposed to the 13 that followed the all-star break.

"I think the big thing for us is that our goalies were pretty good, too," Frolik said. "They were making some key saves and that helps. We have confidence in them, too. We just need to be a little better than we were today and forget this and make sure we bounce back at home.

"I think we're still pretty confident here."

One of the other noteworthy lenses to put on these defensive numbers are that they've been arrived at despite two distinct periods of injury troubles.

Starting in late November and carrying through to January, the team was down as many as five of its starting defencemen.

And most recently, productive left-winger Mathieu Perreault (15 games), all-star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien (nine games), defenceman Ben Chiarot (13 games) and No. 1 centre Bryan Little (nine games) have all been missing.

And yet, defence has improved during these spans, suggesting a focus and understanding of what system will get them to their destination.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca