Limping into the playoffs, Jets still confident vs. Blues

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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.”

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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

WATCH LIVE: Jets visit Ducks on Wednesday Night Hockey

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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.

With 10 games left to play in their season, Winnipeg leads Nashville in the Central and is in line for just the second division title in franchise history. The only time the franchise won their division was when they were the Atlanta Thrashers and won the Southeast Division in 2006-07.

Despite leading the division, Winnipeg has been a mediocre 12-11-2 over the last 25 games, with a minus-3 goal differential during that span.

More recently, however, the Jets have won three straight games, all by one goal, and look more like the team that reached the Western Conference Final last season. After defeating playoff contenders Boston and Calgary, Winnipeg snuck by Los Angeles on Monday 3-2. Kevin Hayes and Kyle Connor both scored, but the Jets blew their two-goal lead before Tyler Myers scored the eventual game-winner late in the second period.

Anaheim is in 14th place in the West and is all but assured to miss the playoffs, which will snap a streak of six straight seasons. That was tied for the second longest active streak in the league with Minnesota, who is still very much alive in the playoff hunt.

Despite their place in the standings, the Ducks have won back-to-back games and six of their last nine games overall. Five of those six wins have come against teams in the playoff hunt.

The Ducks are 9-9-0 since firing Randy Carlyle and replacing him with GM Bob Murray.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Winnipeg Jets at Anaheim Ducks
WHERE: Honda Center
WHEN: Wednesday, March 20, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAMING: You can watch the Jets-Ducks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Patrik LaineMark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler
Kyle Connor – Kevin Hayes – Nikolaj Ehlers
Brandon TanevAdam LowryBryan Little
Mathieu PerreaultAndrew CoppJack Roslovic

Joe MorrowJacob Trouba
Dmitry Kulikov – Tyler Myers
Ben ChiarotSami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

DUCKS
Nick RitchieRyan GetzlafDaniel Sprong
Corey PerryAdam HenriqueTroy Terry
Rickard RakellDevin ShoreJakob Silfverberg
Max JonesDerek GrantCarter Rowney

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Jacob Larsson – Cam Fowler
Jaycob Megna – Korbinian Holzer

Starting goalie: John Gibson

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

Jets’ Tanev leaves game after taking puck to head, returns to finish game

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Anyone who watches the Winnipeg Jets on a regular basis will know of the punishment Brandon Tanev takes.

Some of it is self-inflicted — he skates fast and sometimes hits the boards harder than he hits opponents.

But most of the time it’s because he puts his body on the line in the name of making sure pucks don’t reach the net. Tanev has been drilled by more pucks than a garage door of an aspiring young hockey player.

He takes a beating.

So it wasn’t surprising to see him get drilled by another puck (although this one came in the offensive zone) on Sunday night against the Arizona Coyotes. But it was a little astonishing that he returned to the game.

Tanev was working in the slot when he got crosschecked by Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun, sending the former to the ice. At the same time, Jets d-man Tyler Myers was unloading a point shot toward the net. Instead of deflecting the puck, Tanev took it straight to the back of his head.

Understandably, Tanev stayed on the ice for some time and ended up leaving the game.

But like Tanev often does, he shook it off and returned to the game roughly eight minutes later. It’s impressive and lucky.


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

No timetable for return of Jets’ Byfuglien

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Overall, it’s bad news that there’s no timetable for the return of Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who is once again injured with a lower-body injury.

It’s a different lower-body ailment for Byfuglien, who isn’t that far removed from missing 15 games thanks to that last injury. The Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre reports that Byfuglien isn’t traveling with the Jets for their upcoming three-game road trip, and that he’ll be assessed again in a week. This is a negative update, as the early outlook was that Byfuglien wouldn’t miss much time.

Considering Byfuglien’s mammoth size, and the fact that he’s 33, I can’t help but wonder if the Jets are just going to need to make peace with injuries being a more frequent occurrence. Really, it’s remarkable that this hasn’t been a larger problem during Byfuglien’s career, as it almost defies logic that a human this large can mix mobility, grace, and violence in such an effective way.

But, really, consider the wear-and-tear.

Via Hockey Reference’s numbers, Byfuglien’s delivered 1,885 hits and blocked 781 shots over 864 regular-season games, and that doesn’t include playoff numbers. He’s accrued a lot of mileage as a menacing, high-usage defenseman, and maybe that’s truly adding up, although Byfuglien has been dynamite when he can play, generating an impressive 30 points in just 37 games in 2018-19.

Whether you look at his impact from a leadership or production standpoint, Byfuglien will clearly be missed.

That said, there are some silver linings, even if you have to squint your eyes a bit to see them.

The Jets can pivot trade deadline plans, if they feel it’s necessary.

Personally, if I were Kevin Cheveldayoff, I would still be more focused on strengthening the weak spot that is 2C, whether that means aiming for Matt Duchene or a less costly target such as Kevin Hayes. (Both are discussed in the latest 31 Thoughts column by Elliotte Friedman.)

Either way, the Jets have some clarity that Byfuglien will miss at least some time. Maybe that means going after a defenseman (right-handed or not) instead of a scorer, or perhaps Winnipeg will deem it worthwhile to go for both assets. If nothing else, it’s helpful that Byfuglien suffered this injury before the trade deadline, rather than after it.

Time to test other options.

The Jets get a little time to see who might be able to raise their games. Personally, I’d be most intrigued by Sami Niku. The 22-year-old hasn’t fared particularly well in limited work during 13 NHL games (12 this season), but his AHL numbers and strong word of mouth give the impression that the future is bright. Maybe he can show that such projections don’t need to be that far ahead?

Niku is a left-handed shot, while Byfuglien is a right-handed shot, but the Jets have had a bit of a glut of RHD, as we’ve seen from Buffy and Tyler Myers sometimes siphoning away opportunities from Jacob Trouba.

Both Trouba and Myers are on expiring $5.5 million cap hits, and it’s almost certain one will be gone after 2018-19, if not both considering Winnipeg’s impending cap crunch.

Getting a better idea of where Niku, Tucker Poolman, and other defensemen can fit into the mix could help Cheveldayoff make more informed decisions during the offseason.

Let the big guy rest.

The hidden benefit of injuries is that they often force workhorse players to take a breather.

As mentioned up top, Byfuglien’s been through a ton of battles. While Winnipeg likely wants to strengthen its already comfortable grip on the Central Division crown, the Jets should prioritize heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as healthy as possible.

Really, the Jets might want to consider resting other players alongside Buffy, particularly Blake Wheeler, who’s played a lot of hockey in his own right at age 32.

***

Again, this is bad news overall. That’s especially true if Byfuglien won’t be 100 percent by April.

Still, the Jets are in a good position to absorb this loss, and maybe gather some helpful intel in the process.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Jets on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning lead the NHL with 76 points, the Western Conference has a tighter race at the top, especially in the Central Division, where Winnipeg currently owns the top spot and has four games in hand on the second-place Nashville Predators.

The Jets are currently on pace for 109 points and 52 wins. Last season, the team set franchise records in both wins (52) and points (114), but they still didn’t win the division (Nashville did w/ NHL-best 117 pts).

All-Stars Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are top two on the team in points at 61 and 59, respectively. Kyle Connor is next with 38. Wheeler, tied for ninth in the NHL in points, is second in the league in assists (52) and although his streak of 20-goal seasons may end at five given he has only nine goals, he’s on pace for 104 points, which would be a career high and break Marian Hossa’s franchise record of 100.

In addition to the All-Star break, both teams are coming off their bye weeks, each having last played on Saturday, Jan. 19.

One of the bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference, the Flyers sit 14 points back of a playoff spot and are on track to continue their trend of missing the postseason the year after making it. From 1995-2012, the Flyers made the playoffs 16 times in a 17-season span. Since then, Philly has made just three postseasons in the last six years and each in alternating years.

Wayne Simmonds, a popular name in trade talks ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline, has played in all 48 games this season and put up 15 goals but just 23 points. He’s on track for his sixth straight season with 24-plus goals but only 39 points, which would be his fewest in a full season since 2011.

The Flyers are 7-8-2 since interim coach Scott Gordon took over for Dave Hakstol. The coaching change was one of several moves in what has been a tumultuous season for the team that has also included letting go of GM Ron Hextall and replacing him with Chuck Fletcher.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Monday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Patrik LaineBryan LittleJack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppMason Appleton

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers
Joe Morrow – Sami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

FLYERS
James van RiemsdykClaude GirouxTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonNolan Patrick – Wayne Simmonds
Phil Varone – Mikhail Vorobyev – Michael Raffl

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereAndrew MacDonald
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.