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Winnipeg Jets reaping rewards after buying into team defense

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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.”

Indeed.

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.

Not Andrei Vasilevskiy. Not Sergei Bobrovsky. Not Tuukka Rask.

“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.

[Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived]

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.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Trade: Capitals acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from Blackhawks

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The trade deadline is one week from today so buckle up for a busy week of transactions. It started on Monday with a deal involving the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.

The Deal: The Blackhawks send defenseman Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick.

The condition on the pick is that the Blackhawks will acquire the higher of Washington’s two third-round picks. The Capitals own their own pick, as well as the third-round pick that originally belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals acquired that pick (via New Jersey) in the Marcus Johannson trade over the summer.

Why the Capitals are making this trade: They get a cheap, left-handed shot to add some depth to their blue line. Kempny isn’t going to steal trade deadline headlines the way the Kevin Shattenkirk deal did for the Capitals a year ago, but he definitely adds some depth to the blue line.

Along with the usual suspects on Washington’s blue line (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik) the Capitals have also been using some younger players like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, as well as veteran Taylor Chorney to fill out their D pairings.

In 31 games this season Kempny has one goal and six assists while logging more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game.

Why the Blackhawks are making this trade: It is pretty simple, really. The Blackhawks are pretty much out of the playoff race at this point and this could be the start of them selling off some pieces over the next week. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season and given the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation he may not be someone that figures into their long-term plans.

They are also short on draft picks this summer and do not currently own a second-or fourth-round pick.

They were able to get back a pick in this trade giving them two picks in the third-round (to go with two in the fifth-round and one each in the first, sixth, and seventh).

The other bonus for the Blackhawks: The draft pick carries no salary cap hit next season. Kind of a big deal for them.

Who won the trade: At the moment probably an edge to the Capitals because, well, they’re getting an NHL player to help for a playoff push and the Blackhawks are getting to what amounts to a scratch off lottery ticket. That third-round pick is almost certain to be in the bottom half of the third-round which means it probably only has a 10-20 percent chance of turning into a player that ever plays a single game in the NHL, let alone becomes any sort of an impact player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Slumping Blue Jackets lose Nick Foligno for 1-2 weeks

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Times are tough for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday evening the Blue Jackets are now just 4-9-2 in their past 15 games and have fallen out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting one point back of the New York Islanders entering play on Monday.

Now the team has announced that captain Nick Foligno will be sidelined for the next one-two weeks due to a lower body injury that he suffered in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins.

Foligno, 30, is having a down year with just 13 goals and 13 assists in 59 games but he is still one of the Blue Jackets’ top forwards, and for a team that is struggling to score goals they really can not afford to lose anybody. Especially given the schedule they have coming up.

Over the next two weeks the Blue Jackets have games against the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.

That is a tough stretch that could end up making or breaking their season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: Time to lose Lucic

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This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players you should think of adding that are owned in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues and we’ll also make recommendations on players you should think of dropping. 

Here we go:

Adds:

Clayton Keller– C/LW/RW- Arizona Coyotes (44 percent)

After a terrific start to his rookie season, Keller’s play dropped off. He wasn’t putting up as many points and he wasn’t making as many headlines as he was in October and November. But it looks like now might be the right time to pick up in your fantasy leagues. He has eight points in his last six games, including a four-point night against Montreal last week.

Anthony Mantha– LW/RW- Detroit Red Wings (39 percent)

Mantha was owned in a lot more leagues earlier this season, but his production dropped off quite a bit. He appears to be back on now, as he’s picked up six points in his last six games. He’s versatile enough because he’s eligible to play both wing positions in Yahoo leagues. The Red Wings forward should be added in deeper leagues.

Nico Hischier– C- New Jersey Devils (30 percent)

Hischier and Taylor Hall have formed a remarkable duo over the last little while. After hitting a bit of a wall near the midway point of the season, the first overall pick from last June’s draft has managed to pick up the offensive part of his game. He’s now found the back of the net in four straight games and he’s riding a five-game point streak.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Derick Brassard– C- Ottawa Senators (25 percent)

It sure seems like trade winds have given Brassard an added boost of motivation. The Sens forward has racked up six points in his last four games and he’s coming off a three-point performance against the Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Ondrej Kase– LW/RW- Anaheim Ducks (11 percent)

Kase isn’t a big name, but he’s been lighting it up for Anaheim lately. The 22-year-old has nine points in his last seven games. He’s on pace to hit the 25-goal mark in 2017-18. He could be an intriguing add in deeper fantasy leagues.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (59 percent)

If your league doesn’t award points for penalty minutes, there’s absolutely no reason for Lucic to be on your roster. He hasn’t picked up a point in any of his last 11 games and he hasn’t scored in 22. And in his last 12 contests, he’s also managed to accumulate just four penalty minutes. Lucic needs to be dropped ASAP.

[More Fantasy: Check out the Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Ryan Kesler– C- Anaheim Ducks (47 percent)

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to Kesler. He missed over two months of action because of a hip injury and he just hasn’t looked like himself since returning. The Ducks forward missed the last game because of a lower-body issue. It’s time to cut ties with him and add one of the other players mentioned above.

Robin Lehner– G- Buffalo Sabres (51 percent)

Not only are the Sabres struggling, but Lehner is now day-to-day with an injury. Don’t expect Buffalo to win many games down the stretch, so picking up someone like Petr Mrazek, who might get traded before the deadline, could be a worthwhile gamble.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Canada women beat Russia 5-0, will meet U.S. in hockey final

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — It’s part of the routine now, as much a staple of the Winter Games as the medal ceremonies, the doping scandals or the sequins on the figure skating costumes.

The United States playing Canada for the Olympic women’s hockey gold medal.

Jennifer Wakefield scored twice and Shannon Szabados stopped 14 shots on Monday night to lead the Canadians to a 5-0 victory over Russia and earn the four-time defending Olympic champions a spot in another gold medal game.

It will be the fifth time in six Winter Games since women’s hockey was added to the program that the North American neighbors have met in the final. No one else has ever skated away with an Olympic gold medal.

Canada outshot Russia 47-14 but struggled to pull away, scoring just once in each of the first two periods before Wakefield bounced one in off goalie Valeria Tarakanova’s right arm just two minutes into the third and then Emily Clark made it 4-0 just 31 seconds later.

Russian coach Alexei Chistyakov swapped his goalies, but it was too late. The Russians still have a chance for their first Olympic women’s hockey medal ever when they play Finland in the bronze medal match on Wednesday.

Marie Philip-Poulin and Rebecca Johnston also scored for Canada, which has won 24 in a row at the Olympics since losing the gold medal game in Nagano in 1998.

The United States advanced to the gold medal game with a 5-0 victory over Finland earlier Monday.

The Americans won the Four Nations Cup, third only to the Olympics and world championships in importance, beating Canada in three of the first four games in a Pyeongchang tuneup tour. But Canada has won the last four, with a 2-1 victory in the pool play finale on Thursday.

None of it matters, really.

The gold medal match is the game these two have been looking forward to since Canada rallied from a two-goal deficit and beat the Americans in overtime in Sochi four years ago.

And it’s the only thing right now that can help the 10 American holdovers from that team ease the pain of their 2014 collapse.

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org