WINNIPEG — There was a time in Winnipeg where a one-goal lead would end in a one-goal loss. A time when no lead was safe and it was oddly better to see the Jets trying to climb back from behind than leading heading down the home stretch.
The Jets have learned much since those days, as evidenced by their top spot in the Central Division.
A 90-second 6-on-4 to close out Sunday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks highlighted a new shift in how the Jets conduct their business on the ice.
The above scenario may have spelled doom more often than not in years gone by, but Sunday illuminated how the Jets have been able to overcome those demons and forge ahead with a new philosophy that deploys calmness instead of frantic, poise instead of instability.
The Jets simply bore down when times became tough late in Sunday’s game. Those 90 seconds showed the evolution of the maturity within the team’s defensive structure. They didn’t allow a single shot to touch All-Star goalie Connor Hellebuyck and time simply expired for the Canucks, who couldn’t solve Winnipeg’s riddle.
“I think we’re able to play in those tight games, those low-scoring games and feel we can win those,” said defenseman Josh Morrissey, who has been the Jets best blueliner this season. “I think that’s been a big growth point for our time.”
Winnipeg’s buy-in defensively has ushered in some outstanding results.
Hellebuyck has been nothing short of spectacular between the pipes for the Jets this season, with his recent All-Star nod a testament to an overall turnaround that went from him coming into the season as the No. 2 to the Michigan native being mentioned in part of any conversation that includes the name Vezina.
While the Jets have benefitted from timely saves from their No. 1, Hellebuyck has benefitted from the five in front of him.
No starting goalie in the NHL has seen less high-danger shot attempts than Hellebuyck.
“That’s part of the thing where we want to limit the chances against… limiting that second and third opportunity… sort of by not panicking in those situations when a scrum happens or a chance against happens and being able to have some poise and sort it out, so to speak,” Morrissey said.
The buy-in from the fifth youngest team in the NHL, and one that scores more goals than all but three other NHL outfits, is remarkable.
“I think they have a real strong understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing (defensively),” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after Sunday’s win. “We’re still young in just age on some guys, but the overall structure their understanding’s good. I think the back end has really helped. You take two centers (Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry) out of your lineup it puts an awful lot of stress on your defense.”
Maurice has spoken at length about the reasons he feels his team has figured out the defensive aspects of the game of hockey. He touched on part of the equation on Sunday.
“Having six NHL defencemen makes a difference,” Maurice said, alluding to the fact the Jets spent very little time healthy on the blue line last season. “Being healthy on the back end makes a difference. They control an awful lot of the play. (We’ve got a ) goaltender who’s got a lot of confidence in the pipes. And I go back to center ice. We’ve asked Blake (Wheeler) and Andrew Copp to be really strong and they have been.”
Even the team’s most offensive and offensively gifted player is seeing the light.
“As a team, it doesn’t matter if we’re chasing or leading, we want to play the same game,” said Patrik Laine, the Finnish phenom who leads the Jets with 21 goals this season. “We want to play tight defense and give them nothing and try to be patient. We can’t open up our game.”
Laine, who played his 100th NHL game only recently, has stumbled at times this season. His offensive capabilities haven’t left him, even if his confidence has at times this year, but he’s had little choice but to work on the game played in his own zone.
And the 19-year-old seems to have a keen understanding of what lies ahead for the Jets as they grind toward their second playoff berth since relocating from Atlanta in 2011.
“It’s going to be like this for the next couple of months but everybody here in this locker room is comfortable with that kind of game and that’s the reason why we’re winning,” Laine said. “We’re a tight defensive team and we’ve got to score on the few chances that we get.”
NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Tuesday, as the Detroit Red Wings will host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.
The Flyers have been flying (yes, I went there) over the last few weeks and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to slow down anytime soon.
They come into this game having won three in a row over three teams currently playoff spots (Maple Leafs, Devils, Capitals) and seven of their last eight contests. By now, you’ve heard about the tremendous seasons that Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek are having, but the Flyers have also received production from Travis Konecny, who scored the OT winner against the Caps on Sunday.
Konecny has collected 10 points in his last 11 contests. The fact that he’s skating on a line with Giroux and Couturier certainly doesn’t hurt.
The Flyers now sit in the first Wild Card spot, but they’ve also managed to close the gap on the teams in front of them. Their 54 points are just one behind Columbus, who is in third in the Metro, and two behind the Devils for second place in the division (New Jersey has a game in hand).
“We keep going this same track, we’ll keep plugging away at teams above us,” goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “We can be our best and worst enemy, I guess. We have to keep looking forward, not look at teams chasing us.”
Things are a little more bleak for the Red Wings in the grand scheme of things, as they’re eight points behind the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot in the conference. On a positive note, the Wings are coming off a big 3-0 win over the Devils last night.
The Wings had dropped four of their previous five games going into last night’s tilt, but a strong performance from Petr Mrazek led them to victory.
“I’m trying to get some confidence every game I play, every save I make. I haven’t played a lot of minutes, so every game I am trying,” Mrazek told NHL.com. “Guys did a great job blocking a couple of shots. They hit the post twice. A couple of lucky bounces there. That’s how it is sometimes.”
Detroit will play their next three games at home, as they’ll host Philadelphia tonight and Chicago on Thursday before the All-Star break hits. Coming out of the break, they’ll host San Jose before finally jumping back on the road.
Growing up as the oldest of six children, Tony Granato always seemed to be in charge.
If that meant telling brothers Don and Robby to help their younger siblings put on their shoes or find their jackets, that’s what he did.
A decade or so later, those same qualities stood out on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team – even though defenseman Eric Weinrich and 15 other players were older than Granato.
”I really looked up to Tony as a real leader and someone you could aspire to,” Weinrich said. ”He was really a mature guy for the group that we had. I always kind of thought of him as an older player than he really was. He always seemed like one of those guys that would be a good captain.”
Decades later, the 53-year-old big brother finds himself in that role again on the biggest stage in international hockey.
Granato will coach an unheralded men’s hockey team without NHL players at the Olympics in South Korea next month. Hand-picked by general manager, friend and 1988 Olympic teammate Jim Johannson, who died unexpectedly on the eve of the games, Granato has spent more than 30 years building to this moment.
”I’ve been there as a fan, I’ve been there as a player, I’ve been there as an assistant coach,” Granato said . ”There’s no greater sporting event. There’s no greater place for an athlete to be.”
Brother Don said Tony’s ”spirit is what the Olympic spirit is,” something that began as a teenager in the wake of the 1980 ”Miracle On Ice” team winning the gold medal in Lake Placid, New York. The four hockey-playing Granato children got white and blue jerseys of 1980 heroes Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig and wore them during spirited games in their suburban Chicago basement that always pitted Tony and Cammi against Don and Robby.
The 1980 victory helped the Granato kids realize they could aspire to make the NHL. After being drafted in the sixth round in 1982 by the New York Rangers, Tony played at the University of Wisconsin and representing the U.S. at two world junior tournaments, three world championships and the 1988 Calgary Games.
With full knowledge that he and his teammates were supposed to replicate the 1980 success, Granato was tied for second with eight points and still looks back on that experience with pride even though the U.S. went 2-3 and didn’t reach the medal round.
”I thought we had a tremendous team. We just didn’t get the results,” Granato said. ”We had two phenomenal games: one against Russia and one against the Czechs that we lost heartbreaking games that we could’ve easily won and put ourselves in medal contention. It didn’t go our way, but it was a tremendous honor to be part of that team. I’ve got nothing but great memories about it.”
Eleven years into his NHL career, Granato’s big-brother mentality was on full display in the form of telephone support for sister Cammi as she prepared for Nagano in 1998, the first Olympics with women’s hockey.
”It would be a five-minute conversation, but he was just checking in to make sure I was good, how are the games, how am I feeling – kind of a pep talk,” said Cammi Granato, who in 2010 became one of the first two women to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. ”Of course I listened to everything he had to tell me.”
Granato put up 535 points in 852 games with the Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks during a proud pro career, but he wasn’t selected to play for the U.S. in 1998, the first Olympics featuring NHL players. He traveled to Japan anyway to watch Cammi. When he had to return to North America to resume the season, he was the first person she called to celebrate with after winning the gold medal.
Four years later, when Canada beat the U.S. in the women’s final in Salt Lake City, Cammi saw Tony and his children immediately when she got off the bus following the loss.
”His kids, my nieces and nephews, when I got off the bus were right there and I was pretty devastated,” Cammi said. ”Tony was the next one in line to just grab me and I just remember breaking down with him. He’s always been there for me.”
Since then, Granato has coached with the Colorado Avalanche, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and is in his second season at Wisconsin, his alma mater. Influenced along the way by Stanley Cup winning-coaches Joel Quenneville, Dan Bylsma and Mike Babcock, he returned to the Olympics as an assistant on Bylsma’s U.S. staff in Sochi in 2014.
Over one summer camp and two weeks in Russia, Granato made a significant impact on players. James van Riemsdyk called him ”cerebral” and T.J. Oshie instantly saw how much he cared about the players and USA Hockey.
”He was a really good guy and cared about players and cared about winning,” added Justin Faulk. ”That goes a long way.”
Even though being the bad guy sometimes comes with the territory of being coach, Granato is widely considered by former players to be an excellent communicator. Don got to see that up close as one of his assistants last year at Wisconsin.
”He is exceptional at trying to put himself in the player’s shoes,” Don said. ”He really will communicate differently to different people.”
Granato will be tested on that in South Korea with a 25-man roster that includes 17 players from European professional leagues, four from the college ranks, three from the American Hockey League and semi-retired 38-year-old captain Brian Gionta, many of whom already know him from the Deutschland Cup in November. Gionta described Granato’s coaching style as motivational and full of passion for the game.
Enthusiasm has never been lacking for Granato, who insists he’s not trying to match Cammi’s gold medal for family bragging rights.
”Our expectations of ourselves are to compete for a medal,” Granato said. ”There’s no NHL players going to be able to play in it. But I think it’s even more exciting because the opportunity that these athletes are going to get will be the biggest stage that they’ve ever been on in their lives.”
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org
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• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the ‘Hawks and Bolts.
• Now that he’s feeling healthy again, Marc Savard has officially retired and would like to find work as a coach. (NHLPA)
• The best line in hockey? You’ll find it in Boston. (Bruins Daily)
• Jim Johannson helped shape USA Hockey in a big way. (ESPN)
• It sounds like the Mighty Ducks franchise could be making a comeback as a TV show. (Hollywood Reporter)
• Korea’s women’s hockey coach, Sarah Murray, says she has complete control of how ice time will be handed out on the unified squad. (NBC Olympics)
• Marie-Philip Poulin has been named captain of Team Canada’s Women’s Hockey Team for the upcoming Olympics. (Hockey Canada)
• At this time of year, there are always players’ names that come up in trade rumors. Spector’s Hockey looks at which of those guys won’t be dealt before the trade deadline. (Spector’s Hockey)
• The Golden Knights blue liners have certainly chipped in offensively this season. (SinBin.Vegas)
• The Caps are having trouble limiting their opponent’s high-danger scoring chances this season (Russian Machine Never Breaks)