Limping into the playoffs, Jets still confident vs. Blues

1 Comment

WINNIPEG — Somewhere along the line, the Winnipeg Jets lost their way.

It’s as if the search for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs had been called off early. By Christmas Day, they already knew they’d be there. Firmly planted in first place in the Central Division, and with only one real threat to their throne to be seen, the Jets switched on autopilot somewhere around New Year’s Day. They had hit cruising altitude and kicked back to enjoy the flight.

Winnipeg proved a year earlier that they could be a dominant side. A season with 52 wins is a statement, and they made it. A four-point lead for first place in the Central on New Year’s Eve in the following season was further affirmation. A step forward. Winnipeg were the top dogs in the division. They won the territorial scrap in Game 7 in the second round of last year’s playoffs against the Nashville Predators. They owned the yard now and surpassed the Predators as Central favorites — and by extension, Cup darlings.

But the turbulence hit, and it struck hard, flinging around a Jets team that hadn’t experienced much adversity up until that point.

First, Dustin Byfuglien went down. Then he came back but was thrown to the sidelines once again a week later. Josh Morrissey was next 10 days after that. Byfuglien would miss 34 of the next 39 games and Morrissey would sit for the final 20.

The resulting tailspin exposed Winnipeg’s lack of adequate depth on defense. Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline day acquisition did his best Morrissey impression, but the Jets were forced to run Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov harder, and it showed.

Third-period leads weren’t a safe bet any longer. The Jets, who were 42-1-1 when leading after two periods a year earlier, finished with nine losses in the same scenario this season.

And that first place spot they held for much of the year was finally relinquished in Game 81 and they had to settle for second place in the division and a whole lot of wounds that needed to be licked.

Two devastating injuries mixed with a shot of complacency was a tonic the Jets ended up drinking.

“I think last year we were so set on proving ourselves,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Tuesday. “We’ve only been in the playoffs once and it was a short time. We really wanted to show that we could be a contender and we weren’t used to being in that position.

“[This year], we got off to such a good start that maybe a little complacency set in. But at the same time, you lose Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien at the same time and those are big holes to fill on the backend. I think the loss of both of those guys can’t be understated. They’re huge contributors to our team. Obviously, being comfortably in a playoff position since, basically, January, you kind of know where you’re going to be at the end of the year.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The eyes met the math with the Jets and their two halves to the season showed wildly different teams:

Jets from opening day to Dec. 31
50.91 CF% (10th)
50.73 xGF% (14th)

Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
47.22 CF% (25th)
45.01 xGF% (30th)

An 18-goal month of November by Patrik Laine had him firmly planted where many felt he would be: racing Alex Ovechkin — Laine’s boyhood idol — to the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Laine had 24 goals as of Jan.1. He’d finish the season with 30, which is about all you need to know about how much of a struggle the second half was for the sniper.

Laine admitted Tuesday that he had a tough regular season. He didn’t really need to say the words, however. His body language outside of a stretch of three games where he had four goals, told the whole story. Dejected Laine had been seen around these parts before, but not nearly as long has he stuck around this time.

The 20-year-old Finn ended the season with one goal in 19 games.

“Well, based on my goal scoring it’s obviously not that high,” Laine said of his confidence meter.

Asked if he’s been studying the tendencies of rookie sensation Jordan Binnington, Laine smiled.

“I’ll probably watch something, but right now with my confidence I’ll just try to hit the net,” he said. “I think I had a tough regular season and playoffs are different. Now it doesn’t matter who scores, at least if somebody scores that’s good for us. Hopefully, I can help the team win. If it’s not goals, then something else. But there’s a lot of things we can do.”

Getty Images

In a game that seemed to be more of an aberration than anything, the Jets trounced the Predators 5-0 in the middle of March.

In that game, Winnipeg’s potential was on full display. Their quickness dictated the game, stifling the Predators at every juncture. There was no let-up, either. They simply throttled a team many believe has the best defense in the show.

The Jets have been preaching from the pulpit and using that game as one this season where they displayed the ferocity they believe they can unleash beginning on Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Winnipeg’s run-in was so poor and St. Louis’ was so good (although the difference in wins between both teams was actually just one), however, that St. Louis has been pegged by many as the favorites to move on.

And there’s merit to that.

Winnipeg’s record over the second half of the season would have had them sitting in a fight for a wildcard spot. No team not named the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record than St. Louis, who leaned on fantastic shot suppression and brilliant goaltending. The tables flipped, but the Jets feel certain they’re ready to up the ante.

“I think you’re going to see a team that’s been able to get up for the big games against really good teams all year,” Lowry said, listing of specifics, such as their win against the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the year, among other battles.

“We know the team we are,” Mark Scheifele added.

Scheifele was an unstoppable force through two rounds last season and put up career-year numbers this year.

“We had our good stretches, our bad stretches,” he said. “We know what makes us a good team. It’s about putting it on the ice. It’s not about talking about it, saying what we’re going to do. It all comes down to putting it on the ice. Walking the walk.”

The Jets didn’t get the Vezina runner-up goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck as they did in 2017-18. Part of that was so-so start and was followed up by some big losses on the blue line. Hellebuyck has returned to that form, however. In his final 10 appearances of the season, Hellebuyck put up a .930 save percentage.

Is he ready?

“Yes, I am. I can honestly say that,” Hellebuyck said. “I like where my game is at. My mind is right. I’m ready for the battle.”

That battle commences on Wednesday night.

MORE: Jets vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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

Healthier defense would make Byfuglien-sized difference for Jets

Getty Images

The Winnipeg Jets have made a habit of “finding ways to win” this season, but it hasn’t always been pretty. That’s been particularly true lately, with key defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey out with injuries.

It’s unclear when, exactly, Byfuglien and Morrissey may return. This NHL.com report from Tim Campbell indicates that the team thinks Byfuglien could play on Saturday (or even Thursday), with the general feeling being that he could be back in the lineup soon. Morrissey, meanwhile, seems to be targeting an early April return.

Campbell’s story is entertaining because of the range of ways people describe the impact of Byfuglien, citing both his ability to move the puck out of trouble (and in trouble for opponents), and his ability to intimidate opposing players if they try to cause trouble. Jets coach Paul Maurice tends to have a way with words, so it’s not shocking that he painted quite the picture.

“He changes the way [opposing] forwards view their night,” Maurice said. “I don’t know that people are chirping our bench any more but you’re not checking your shoulder quite as hard when you’re going to get a puck when it’s not Dustin coming after you.”

The Jets are generally better equipped to handle the absence of Byfuglien and Morrissey, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a strain. Byfuglien’s been averaging 24:26 TOI per game so far in 2018-19, while Morrissey had been logging 22:24 TOI. That burden fell to Jacob Trouba – who seems to have mostly handled it well – but also pressed Sami Niku and Nathan Beaulieu into action.

You could argue that there could be a silver lining to this situation, in that Niku and Beaulieu might serve as upgrades to Ben Chiarot and Dmitry Kulikov once Byfuglien and Morrissey return, depending upon your taste. But either way, the absence of Byfuglien and Morrissey has been resounding.

Even with a relatively healthy defense, the Jets have already shown some warning signs of trouble when you look past simple goals scored and allowed, and peaked at underlying stats. If you look at Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart, though, you can see that things went from “shaky for a contender” to just-plain scary once February rolled around:

via Money Puck

That, friends and foes, is a pretty disturbing chart.

Now, sure, the Jets have the sort of shooting talent that can make the difference many nights, even when they’re underwater from a puck possession standpoint. It’s telling, for instance, that the Jets scored one more goal (57) than allowed (56) during their latest, bumpy 18-game stretch where they’ve gone 9-8-1 while losing the total shots on goal battle by almost 100 (605-509).

What happens, however, when the Jets don’t get to feast on the Senators, Rangers, and Ducks of the NHL? Would they be able to skill-over-will opponents who boast similar firepower if they kept playing at this current rate?

Getting Byfuglien and Morrissey back sure seems crucial to that goal, and Winnipeg has to hope that they can shake off some rust while also entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as healthy as possible. For all we know, they could make the difference between a big run or more postseason heartbreak for a prodigiously talented team.

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.

Jets’ Hellebuyck earns first shutout of the season vs. Ducks

6 Comments

The Winnipeg Jets have fallen victim of the bad-team bug a few times this season.

They lost twice to the Ottawa Senators inside one week earlier this year, twice to the Colorado Avalanche in the same time frame and once to the Arizona Coyotes, who weren’t quite yet on the run they’re now in February.

So coming into this road trip late in the season, where they’d play the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks in two of the three games, there was a reason to be worried they’d get caught in the trap.

The good news for the team is that hasn’t been the case this time out. They beat Los Angeles on Monday and put together a 3-0 win against the Ducks on NBCSN on Wednesday Night Hockey for their fourth straight win after a 29-save shutout from Connor Hellebuyck, his first of the season.

Winnipeg is now three points up on the second-place Nashville Predators with a game in hand and a big meeting with their rivals on Saturday back in Winnipeg — a game that could decide the division if Winnipeg can get the win.

First, however, they’ll have to play the streaking Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in Sin City. For the most part, they didn’t expend too much energy in their Wednesday win, so there should still be some gas left in the tank.

Hellebuyck’s is unlikely to start against Vegas, with the Jets looking like they’ll rest their No. 1 for Saturday’s pivotal big game against the Predators, but he had a relatively easy night. Laurent Brossoit, Winnipeg’s’ exceptional backup, should get the call.

Winnipeg’s defense has been decimated down the stretch, with no Dustin Byfuglien, no Josh Morrissey and now no Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline acquisition that was thrust into a top-pairing role. Beaulieu missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, making an already thin blue line that much thinner.

Given all their injuries on the back end, the shutout performance by the team is remarkable, even against the Ducks. Winnipeg is slated to get Big Buff and Morrissey back in time for the playoffs, which is critical if they’re to make a deep run once again.

Kyle Connor has a goal and an assist for the second straight game for the Jets. The sophomore has 12 points in his past 14 games.

The Ducks, who came into the game winners of six of their past night, seemed more interested in pestering the Jets rather than playing hockey against them. They didn’t give up six first period goals this time around, or lose 9-3. So that was an improvement over their last meeting.

Like many nights this season, this wasn’t Anaheim’s. If nothing else, the loss helps their lottery chances. All the winning they’ve been doing lately hasn’t helped, however.


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

Wednesday Night Hockey: Jets taking off at right time

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The expectations were for the Jets coming into this season. Even though they’re not at the top of the Western Conference standings like most people expected, it doesn’t mean that this campaign will be a failure. What happens during the regular season doesn’t really matter to Winnipeg. They’ll be judged on their performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In 2018, a trip to the Western Conference Final was more or less a success. This year, that won’t be the case. Anything short of the Stanley Cup will be a disappointing end to a promising season.

The Jets are deep at every position, which means they can survive injuries come playoff time. Dustin Byfuglien, who is sidelined by an ankle injury right now, has played in just 37 games this season, but they’ve found a way to make it work without him. Of course, getting him back before the start of the postseason would be huge for their chances of going all the way.

“Our back end is deep,” head coach Paul Maurice said, per the Winnipeg Sun. “We have two really, really important defensemen out of our lineup — one of them for half the season in Dustin Byfuglien — and when everyone is healthy I’m gonna have 10 NHL defensemen that can play and three more in the minors that have played for us at some point this year.”

Nathan Beaulieu, who the club acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline, has played an important role while Joe Morrow and Byfuglien have been sidelined.

They’re just as deep at every forward position. Down the middle, they have: Mark Scheifele, Kevin Hayes and Adam Lowry. At left wing, they can rely on Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Brandon Tanev, and Matthieu Perreault. On the right side, It’s Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little (he can also play center) and Jack Roslovic. There’s not many teams that can say they have that much depth (the Tampa Bay Lightning might be the only ones).

The Jets are just getting over a stretch in which they lost three of four games, but they’ve bounced back by winning three in a row over Boston, Calgary and Los Angeles. After tonight’s game against the Ducks, they’ll play four consecutive games against teams currently in a playoff spot (the Golden Knights, Predators, Stars and Islanders) and they’ll also take on a Canadiens team that is just one point out of a position in the postseason.

Winnipeg will finish the season with a four-game road trip that will take them to Chicago, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona.

All that means is that the Jets will have to continue playing this well down the stretch so that they can ride into the playoffs with some positive momentum. This final stretch of games won’t be easy, so going out and finding teams to challenge them shouldn’t be too difficult.

“There’s no panic in our game,” Hayes said. “We keep playing four lines and everyone contributes. It just shows the quality of our team.

“When you think about the Jets, it’s a high-scoring team but these last couple of games we’re playing good defense and squeezing out wins. That’s what it takes at this time of year when you need important points.”

Alex Faust (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

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.

Recent Cup champs show small trades can make big difference

Getty Images

Nick Jensen was just a Minnesota boy who played his first three seasons in Detroit.

Then he walked into the Washington Capitals’ locker room and saw the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who welcomed their newest defenseman with open arms.

”I never knew them before this and I just see them on TV, and it’s a little star-striking right away,” Jensen said.

Jensen isn’t a star, but he and winger Carl Hagelin sure fit the mold of low key trade-deadline acquisitions who can pay big dividends during a long playoff run. The Capitals learned last year in getting defenseman Michal Kempny how a seemingly small trade can make a big difference, and the defending Stanley Cup champions are among the teams that made low-risk moves at last month’s trade deadline in hopes of reaping a high reward.

Vegas paid a big price to land winger Mark Stone, Winnipeg gave up its first-rounder for center Kevin Hayes and both teams are better for those pickups. Yet recent history shows contenders who tinkered rather than making a splash at the deadline got it right.

”To bring in people that are going to take major roles from some of your core guys, it starts to create some issues,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. ”Any time you have a chance to improve your players and acquire depth and give them a better opportunity to win, you don’t ever pass it up. But it’s something that seems like it’s been a successful one for us last year with a little bit of an under the radar acquisition and then this year the same thing.”

Before the 2018 Capitals, the 2016 Penguins got Hagelin and defenseman Justin Schultz before the deadline, and a year later added Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for blue line depth and repeated as champions even without Kris Letang. The 2015 Blackhawks similarly added forwards Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins and defenseman Kimmo Timonen before winning their third championship in six seasons.

While Columbus went all in to get forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel even with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky set to be free agents, other playoff teams tweaked to fill existing holes. Nashville paid reasonable prices to upgrade up front with Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. Winnipeg made perhaps its most important pickup with unheralded defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Pittsburgh responded to injuries by trading for defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Chris Wideman.

”We feel like we picked up some good pieces,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. ”But for the most part, this is the group that we’ve got to get on the page and get going in the right direction.”

Perhaps one reason minor deadline moves have as big an impact as substantial ones is there’s only a quarter of a season for players to get acclimated to their new teammates. It’s an ongoing process of watching video, studying and adjusting and it all happens on the fly in the midst of valuable games.

”You have to make an impact pretty quickly,” Gudbranson said. ”Just play my game, be physical, make the simple play, be solid and just communicate quite a bit.”

TICKING CLOCKS

NHL general managers have approved adding small digital clocks embedded in rink boards in all four corners beginning next season, an improvement that could add the odd goal or two because players won’t have to look up at a scoreboard for the time anymore.

”It’s a good idea,” Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”You have an awareness of how much time is on the clock no matter what, but to see it, especially toward the end of a period or whatever may be happening, I think it’s only a good thing for players to have that.”

The league’s Board of Governors must approve the idea first for it to become a reality in all arenas.

HITCH’S MEMORY

The goal that haunts Buffalo Sabres fans isn’t etched in Ken Hitchcock’s memory. Twenty years since he coached the Dallas Stars to the Cup – a series that ended with Brett Hull’s infamous ”skate in the crease” overtime goal – Hitchcock has barely watched the game.

”I watched the game that we lost to New Jersey (in the 2000 Final) 20 times, and I know every shift,” said Hitchcock, who now coaches Edmonton. ”I know everything that went on in that Jersey game. But I never looked at (Game 6 in 1999) until it came up in the summer on the NHL Network, and there was a one-hour highlight package that they show on games. That’s the first time I saw it.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Blue Jackets need all the points they can get as they claw for a playoff spot, and it doesn’t get much bigger than their game against the Penguins on Saturday night.