ANAHEIM — The Winnipeg Jets have been feasting on opponents lately and stuffing the win column. And so as they took some time Thursday to fill their bellies on American Thanksgiving in southern California, it didn’t go unnoticed that they’re sitting above the playoff line on what many view as an all-important date.
Although the 2019-20 NHL regular season doesn’t end until early April, there’s a wide-held belief in the hockey world that the late November U.S. holiday is traditionally a tell-tale marker of whether a team is going to have a shot at playing for the Stanley Cup or hitting the golf course in the spring.
In fact, the numbers over the past two decades show that about 80 per cent of teams that hold down a spot on U.S. turkey day are still in that spot when the 16-team tournament starts in the spring, with the other 15 clubs on the outside looking in.
"Sounds good to me," said Jets defenceman Anthony Bitetto following his team’s practice in a Los Angeles-area suburb. He then quickly poured some cold gravy over any sense of satisfaction of where the team sits today.
"Honestly, there’s so much time left. And we saw last year with St. Louis, they were dead last in January (before going on to win it all)," Bitetto said. "So you can’t really look at that. We’ve just got to keep playing the same way we’ve been playing and get better each day."
At 15-9-1, the Jets are in third place in the Central Division, one point behind the Dallas Stars and five behind the St. Louis Blues. They have a three-point lead, not to mention three games in hand, on the Calgary Flames, who are just outside the Western Conference playoff line.
Winnipeg is coming off a dominating 5-1 victory on Wednesday night in San Jose and will wrap up this quick road trip with a Black Friday matinee in Anaheim, followed by a Saturday night date at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Kings.
Connor Hellebuyck will get the start against the Ducks, who beat the Jets 7-4 on Oct. 29 at Honda Center. Since then, Winnipeg has been red hot, with a 9-2-1 record in what’s been a November to remember.
No lineup changes are expected for the group that handled the Sharks with relative ease. Defenceman Luca Sbisa missed Thursday’s practice, still smarting from a team-high four blocked shots the night before, but is expected to play.
Winnipeg got in the way of 17 pucks fired off San Jose sticks, which is one of the highest totals for the Jets this season and shows an overall commitment to sacrifice the body for the greater good of the team, according to head coach Paul Maurice. The Jets also went 6-for-6 on the penalty kill against a talented Sharks lineup, which is another big factor in finding success.
"It hurts. It takes some courage, for sure. We felt this (Wednesday) night, in all parts of our game. You get to a level of mental engagement that you’re everywhere faster. You get in those lanes faster. It’s certainly a skill. You have to play at a certain engagement level to want to get in those shot lanes," said Maurice.
There was another intriguing aspect to this latest victory: Maurice was able to spread the minutes out among players in a way rarely seen. For example, defenceman Dmitry Kulikov logged the most ice time for the Jets but played just 20:46. That’s a key development for keeping everyone relatively fresh on a team that has been zig-zagging across North America early in the season.
Forward Adam Lowry, a big part of the improved penalty kill, said there’s certainly some satisfaction with the where the Jets are today — but nobody is getting fat off living in the present.
"You obviously want to be playing well at the start of a season and getting those results. It’s important that you start banking points now. But you can’t take anything for granted," said Lowry.
"I think we come to the rink every day and we try to get better. You’ve seen it, especially over the last month, there’s been a lot of areas that have really improved. Our compete level has been there every night since the start of the year. And our system is getting better."
To a man, the Jets point to their strong road record (9-4-0) as a product of being a tight-knit group that enjoys being together. This is already their fourth long trip of the season, and the second on the West Coast after a pair in the eastern time zone.
"I think it’s a huge contributor to the team. It’s like when you’re buddies, and you become boys. I think we’re becoming that. It’s a good feeling right now in the room, and we’ve got to continue that," said Bitetto.
The whole team, including coaches and support staff, got together Thursday evening for a Thanksgiving spread at their hotel.
"It’s nice to be back in the U.S. for sure. Thanksgiving’s a big holiday for my family. Everyone gets together. It’s unfortunate I’m going to miss it, but I’ve got my other family here to have it with," said Bitetto, a native of New York.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Thursday, November 28, 2019 at 11:52 PM CST: Adds photos