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Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season

WINNIPEG — They set a franchise record in wins, won their first playoff game in the team’s existence and stamped a ticket to the Western Conference Final for good measure.

But if you ask the Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a man coming off a career-year with 91 points and a shiny, new five-year, big-money contract extension to show for it, it all means very little.

“We didn’t accomplish anything last year,” Wheeler said as he stood in front of his locker room stall at Winnipeg’s practice facility earlier this month. “Making the playoffs was certainly a hurdle for this group. It was something that we desperately needed to accomplish for some of that verification of what I was talking about before. When the puck drops this season, it’s not going to be Game 1 of the Western finals again. There’s a long road to get back to where we got last year and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen or we think we’re better than everyone else or because we had a good year last year.”

There’s a lot to unpack, particularly in that first sentence alone.

In one sense, Wheeler is right.

Ultimately, in the National Hockey League, if you’re not first, you’re last.

Banners aren’t raised for second place.

In that vein, the Jets accomplished nigh last season. They made waves but ultimately fell short of the goal, like every team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs minus one, the Washington Capitals.

For the Vegas Golden Knights, their second-place showing will only be remembered because of its rarity (you know, the best expansion team ever stuff). Otherwise, second place gets forgotten in the annals of hockey history. No one remembers, nor cares, about who finished second.

But you can’t just brush aside what the Jets did last season — 52 wins is a lot of wins (only Nashville and Tampa had more); 114 points is a lot of points (only Nashville had more).

There’s more, too: A young goalie who re-invented himself over the summer before going on to win 44 games and finish second in Vezina voting. A captain who turned in an elite career year. A second-year sniper that had 44 goals and would have likely had more if he his stick didn’t catch a cold as the regular season drew to a close.

Winnipeg didn’t take the ultimate step but they certainly began their ascent on Lord Stanley’s mountain. They are, simply, a bona fide Cup contender in what’s often regarded as the toughest division in hockey and arguably the strongest conference in the NHL.

Wheeler is both right and wrong at the same time.

One thing is certain though: repeating success is hard.

* * *

As big as last season was in Winnipeg, and by the same token, as important as it was for the organization, the coming 2018-19 season has even more riding on it.

Expectations are undeniably higher.

The Jets showed a lot of good things last season.

When Mark Scheifele missed 16 games with an upper-body injury, instead of crumbling, Winnipeg responded with an 11-2-3 record with their No. 1 center out of the lineup. Wheeler stepped in to play Scheifele’s role and the rest of the team fell in behind him as the team thrived amid the adversity.

[Can Patrik Laine score 50?]

A young Jets team took much of what came their way last season in stride. Blemishes were few, and they have to be to win 52 games. The Jets didn’t lose three straight in regulation until the Conference Final.

But resting on their laurels would be a massive mistake.

“In our minds, we can’t rest on what we did last year,” Scheifele said. “Obviously, we had a good year, there’s going to be expectations, but at the end of the day it takes a whole lot of hard work, it takes a lot of things to go right, and we have to start here. It’s Day 1… we have to be ready for a lot of hard work, to play fast, to play our game and get ramped up for the season.”

Now, Winnipeg doesn’t have the excuse this season of being that inexperienced playoff team. They went pretty deep last season, playing (and winning) a Game 7, and also feeling the heartbreak of defeat. They know what it is to lose now and, more importantly, they caught a glimpse of what it takes to win.

* * *

The Jets set the bar last season.

And for that bar to get to where it did last season (and beyond), a lot of things needed to go in Winnipeg’s favor.

Wheeler’s monster season. Laine’s ascendance to the NHL’s goal-scoring pantheon, Kyle Connor’s emergence after leading all rookies in goal scoring. Hellebuyck’s evolution. Winnipeg’s resilience.

All important to last year, surely. But the coming season?

“All the things that went into last year are built yearly,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Friday. “We have some talented players, we lost some talented players, so we start to build a season again. Even if you win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve seen it in the past, if you don’t start a training camp and build again from ground zero, you’re going to miss the playoffs in this league when you’re in our division and in our conference. All the things that went into the final two months of the season, all the good was built over the course of the year and it’s going to have to happen again.”

[Jets Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions]

Maurice knows this all too well.

In 2002, he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. The next year, the Hurricanes went from first in their division to fifth, missing the postseason.

In 2008, and back behind the bench in Raleigh, Maurice led the Hurricanes deep again, this time to the Eastern Conference Final where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next season, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs again with another sub .500 season.

“It changes,” Maurice said. “Every year your circumstances are different than the year prior, so for this year, specifically, [we] did not change training camp. All the things that we needed to improve on have to be [improved on] and it goes with that message. It’s not so much that we’re starting at ground zero. I know said that, I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate. We believe in our team, we’ve got some good players here.

“But the grind that you have to go, the price that you have to pay has to be paid every year regardless of your talent. And that’s the message.”

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

The Buzzer: Bruins blow big lead; Troubling Crosby report

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Uh oh

The Athletic’s Rob Rossi reports (sub required) that Sidney Crosby is considering undergoing surgery for a sports hernia, among other treatment options.

Rossi reports that Crosby recently aggravated the injury, but it was something that had been bothering throughout 2019-20. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ host of injuries explained why Crosby didn’t undergo a procedure sooner.

If Crosby undergoes such a surgery, Rossi explains that the typical recovery window is four-to-six weeks, although Crosby’s been told it may only sideline him for a month. There are other possibilities to try to avoid surgery, as Rossi outlines, although delaying the inevitable could lead to aggravating the issue again.

Personally, I’d bite the bullet and have Crosby go under the knife now, rather than risking losing him during an even more important time of the year. We’ll see how it goes, whether Crosby opts for surgery or tries alternate options. It doesn’t seem like the rosiest update overall, though.

Three Stars

1. Andrew Werner, Colorado Avalanche

This post goes into greater detail, but in short, Werner made his NHL debut after Pavel Francouz was injured seconds into Tuesday’s game against the Jets. Not only did the 22-year-old Werner win for Colorado, he also stopped all 40 of Winnipeg’s shots on goal.

Technically, Werner won’t get a shutout, as Francouz started the contest and played for about one minute. It was a functional shutout in every other way, though — Werner even stopped all eight of Patrik Laine‘s shots on goal — so he nabs the top star of Tuesday.

2. Nathan MacKinnonalso of the Colorado Avalanche

… Unless you think his teammate is more deserving.

With Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog still on the shelf, MacKinnon showed that he can still generate high-level offense, as he factored into all four Avalanche goals (2G, 2A).

It’s been a little all-or-nothing for MacKinnon lately. Along with Tuesday’s four points, he also generated a four-point game (1G, 3A) on Nov. 7. Yet, in three of his five most recent games, MacKinnon was held pointless. Eight points in five games still rocks, mind you, but maybe that feast-or-famine pattern shows where MacKinnon might miss his partners in crime.

Either way, it’s been a superstar-status-affirming start to 2019-20, as MacKinnon has 11 goals and 26 points in 18 games.

3. Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers

The Panthers missed out on a Mike Hoffman power-play opportunity when the lights went out temporarily in Boston, and to make matters worse, were behind 4-0 during the third period. Instead of folding, Florida scored four goals during that third period, then beat the Bruins 5-4 via a shootout.

Yandle played a big role in that rally (1G, 2A). The high-scoring defenseman collected primary assists on two Panthers goals, and also scored the goal that sent the game to overtime.

There were other players who generated three points on Tuesday, including Yandle’s teammate, Jonathan Huberdeau. The importance of Yandle’s goal, or primary nature of Yandle’s assists, made his night stand out, though. (Huberdeau’s assists were secondary, and Tanner Pearson‘s goal was an empty-netter, as two examples. Oh, and Huberdeau is now tied for first in Panthers history with 249 assists, alongside Stephen Weiss.)

Highlight of the Night

Brendan Lemieux‘s tremendous pass + Kaapo Kakko‘s great move to finish things off for a goal already received plenty of attention, but sorry, it’s the clip of the night.

Factoids

  • Tuesday marked just the third time in Bruins history where an opponent tied the game after Boston carried a four-goal lead into the third period, via Mike Biergard of the NHL. The Bruins lost 7-6 in OT to the Maple Leafs in 1989, and won 5-4 against the Kings in 1981.
  • From the Panthers’ perspective:

  • Erik Karlsson was another player who authored a three-point game, generating three assists as San Jose beat Edmonton. That’s his 37th three-point game, the most of any defenseman since Karlsson entered the league in 2019-20, via NHL PR.
  • One more from NHL PR: Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar joins Larry Murphy (Kings, 1980-81) as the only two rookie defensemen to generate at least one point in 14 of their first 18 regular season games.

Scores

FLA 5 – BOS 4 (SO)
MTL 3 – CBJ 2 (SO)
NYR 3 – PIT 2 (OT)
ARI 3 – STL 2 (SO)
COL 4 – WPG 0
VAN 5 – NSH 3
DET 4 – ANA 3 (OT)
LAK 3 – MIN 1
SJS 6 – EDM 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Oilers were not happy with Hertl’s hit on McDavid

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Even in late 2019, it’s a little bit odd to see Brandon Manning stand up for Connor McDavid. You know, after that.

The two have been Edmonton Oilers teammates for a while now, and Manning did just that on Tuesday, dropping the gloves with Barclay Goodrow of the San Jose Sharks after Tomas Hertl delivered a controversial neutral zone hit on McDavid.

You can watch Hertl’s hit, McDavid’s reaction, and the ensuing fight in the video above this post’s headline.

The early signs are that McDavid avoided an injury (at least one significant enough to make him miss immediate action), as he finished the game. McDavid logged four third-period shifts after that incident in the second period, so that’s a decent sign that the Oilers my have avoided the bullet of a lower-body injury.

Then again, he seemingly left in a hurry after the Sharks beat the Oilers 6-3, so we’ll see.

What do you think of Hertl’s hit, though? For what it’s worth, Hertl received a minor penalty for interference on the play.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avalanche stumble upon new hero after another startling injury

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The Colorado Avalanche’s list of injuries was already pretty ridiculous, particularly for mid-November, and things got worse on Tuesday. Even so, they found a way to beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-0.

Less than a minute into the game, Jets star Mark Scheifele fell into Avs goalie Pavel Francouz, who was already taking over for an injured Philipp Grubauer. It was a hard collision, as you can see from the video above. Scheifele received a justifiable interference penalty for the exchange, and was seen apologizing.

Francouz would not return to the contest, and it’s unknown if he’ll miss additional time. If you want an indication of how much injuries are piling up even just in Colorado’s net, realize that the Avs had to call upon a fabled emergency goalie. In this case, it was Byron Spriggs.

The Avalanche would never need Byron Spriggs.

Nope, instead, Adam Werner came in cold for his first NHL start — and managed an outstanding shutout in everything but its name.

(Technically, Werner didn’t play the full contest, so he’ll have to accept that it’s a shutout only in our hearts and minds, not to mention between the Jets’ expletives.)

Werner didn’t just get propped up in a 4-0 win; he made a resounding 40 saves for that basically-it’s-a-shutout.

The Avalanche did an OK job protecting Werner from the toughest of opportunities — via Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg’s expected goals was 2.41, with nine high-danger chances — but 40 shots on goal are 40 shots on goal. Patrik Laine fired eight SOG alone.

Now, it’s not fair to call Werner an unbeatable unknown.

The 22-year-old Swede was at least drafted, as the Avalanche selected Werner in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2016. While his AHL stats haven’t been anything to write home about, there are indications here and there that he might be more than a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night.

But … he also might be a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night. Either way, it was one great out-of-nowhere performance, and it’s easy to see why he looked so stunned after the win.

(Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Remarkable stuff, and beyond this coming out party for Adam Werner and Adam Werner Google searches, it was another reminder that Nathan MacKinnon is ridiculously explosive. Despite the Avs missing Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog (among others), the speedy center was involved in all four of Colorado’s tallies, scoring two goals and two assists.

Maybe that’s the formula for the 10-5-2 Avalanche, at least while they’re riddled with injuries: “MacKinnon being MacKinnon plus some random hero popping up out of the blue/fifth round of 2016.”

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.