Josh Morrissey

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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

Kelowna Rockets fined $500 for complaining about officiating at Memorial Cup

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The Kelowna Rockets have been fined $500 after a member of the club approached the CHL hockey operations department to complain about the officiating following Friday night’s 4-3 loss to the Quebec Remparts in the Memorial Cup opener.

Kelowna was assessed 44 minutes in penalties including three 10-minute misconduct penalties in a game, which Rockets’ head coach Dan Lambert said wasn’t overly physical.

“I don’t remember being a part of a hockey game where there’s really not that much physicality going on yet there’s four 10s handed out,” Lambert told reporters on Saturday. “I don’t remember it. Maybe it’s something that goes on here more often. I don’t know. Lets hope it was a lesson for us and that we learned from it.”

Edmonton Oilers’ first rounder Leon Draisaitl was assessed a 10 minute misconduct at the end of the second period and missed the first half of the third. Winnipeg Jets’ prospect Josh Morrissey received a misconduct with 1:04 remaining in the third.

“Personally I think there’s other ways to send warnings. Certainly it should start with (minor penalties) and not hand out 10s like they’re hot cakes, but maybe that’s the way it is here,” said Lambert. “At the end of the day, we need to learn from it.

“I know if I was a fan, I’d like to see Leon Draistl and the (Marc-Olivier Roy) kid that got it and so on and so forth. I don’t see Sidney Crosby getting 10s like that at the NHL level when he gets upset and chirps somebody.”

Center Dillon Dube was the other Rockets’ player to receive a 10-minute misconduct. Roy, an Oilers prospect, was the only member of the Quebec Remparts to receive a misconduct.

Habs deal Budaj to Jets for Tangradi

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The Montreal Canadiens solved their goaltending dilemma Sunday dealing Peter Budaj to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Eric Tangradi.

Winnipeg also picked up Patrick Holland in the deal.

Budaj, 32, has spent nine seasons in the NHL with the Avalanche and Canadiens. In 296 career games, he is 124-107-36 with a 2.76 GAA and a, .903 save percentage to go along with 11 career shutouts.

Originally a sixth round pick of the Avs, Budaj had a 10-8-3 record last season backing up Carey Price, but fell out of of favor with the club as prospect Dustin Tokarski started over him in the playoffs when Price was injured.

“I would like to thank Peter Budaj who has been an outstanding teammate and stood tall for us over the past three seasons,” said GM Marc Bergevin in a statement. “This transaction enables our team to make room for Dustin Tokarski.”

As TVA’s Renaud Lavoie points out, the Habs save $838,000 with Tokaraski as the team’s backup over Budaj.

Both Budaj and Tokarski would’ve required waivers, so you can see why the trade was made.

Budaj provides Winnipeg with a solid No. 2 to push starter Ondrej Pavelec. Prior to the deal, the Jets had rookie Michael Hutchinson backing up Pavelec. Hutchinson has just three career NHL games on his resume.

Holland has spent the last two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Last season the 22-year-old had six goals and 17 points in 57 games. He also appeared in five games for the Canadiens where he was held without a point. Holland will likely report to the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps.

Tangradi, who cleared waivers on Saturday, will be assigned to the Bulldogs. The 25-year-old spent the last two seasons with the Jets where he scored four goals and 10 points in 91 games. Originally an Anaheim Ducks second round pick, Tangradi also appeared in 45 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins over four seasons.

“Eric Tangradi is a young veteran with 136 NHL games under his belt. He adds depth to our group up front and provides us with more options when we will need help coming from our affiliate team in Hamilton,” said Bergevin.

Jets trim roster

In a separate transaction the Jets released six players Sunday.

Ben Chiarot and Keaton Ellerby were placed on waivers while goaltender goaltender Danny Taylor was released from his professional tryout.

Winnipeg also sent Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey and Nic Petan back to their respective junior clubs.