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.”