Winnipeg Jets targeting playoffs after strong start

While the latest Connor McDavid versus Auston Matthews meeting flittered in Toronto on Sunday because of Matthews’s upper-body injury, the hockey world should not ignore how well young star Patrick Laine and the Winnipeg Jets have performed in the opening third of the 2017-18 season.

Yes, that fishing expedition a few Jets took part in British Columbia during a mandated day off that caused such a stir in early October is a distant memory.

Last Monday, the Jets awoke to find themselves with the best record in the West at 17-6-4 and tied for first overall with the Tampa Bay Lightning, 18-6-2.

Okay, Winnipeg’s week at the top did not go well. The Jets lost 5-1 in Detroit on Tuesday, 6-4 in Florida on Thursday and 4-3 in overtime to the aforementioned Lightning two nights later.

But this is a tuckered-out bunch right now. The Jets will play in their 15th game in 28 days when they entertain the Vancouver Canucks on Monday. In late November, they returned from a four-game road trip for a single home date against the Minnesota Wild before having to fly to Denver to take on the Avalanche and then return home for two more games before hitting the road last week for their three-game trip.

Well-stocked arsenal

Despite their woes last week, the Jets are considered a contender by pro scouts who have watched them recently. They have been dynamite at home with a 10-2-1 record in front of one of the loudest and imaginative fan bases in the league. Only the Lightning (13-2-1) and expansion Vegas Golden Knights have better home records.

The Jets also have scored 3.4 goals a game (fourth in the league), the fourth best power play and have reduced their goals against average to 2.87 goals per game (11th) from 3.11 (27th) last year.

But beyond the numbers, this team has plenty of parts to be excited about. Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has put together a roster that has speed but also can play heavy and physical.

First and foremost, the Jets have a healthy Tyler Myers. He’s a steady defender who was sorely missed last season when he was limited to 11 games because of groin problems. He and newcomer Dmitry Kulikov have become a dependable tandem.

The Jets also have veteran leadership with Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Matt Hendricks and defenceman Toby Enstrom, who currently is out with a lower-body injury. They have mature youth with Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba.

Hellebuyck shining in net

The Jets have cashed in on goalie Connor Hellebuyck of Commerce, Mich. The UMass Lowell product has emerged as a front-line starter, even though Steve Mason was playing decent enough before he suffered a concussion a couple weeks ago.

The 36-year-old Hendricks has come in and provided gritty fourth-line minutes and brought along his younger linemates like Joel Armia and Brandon Tanev.

The Jets have suffered from poor team defence and inadequate goaltending in the past. But although they still suffer setbacks and play too loose at times, they are much better in front of their goalie these days.

They also still take too many penalties, but because their penalty killing has been so good, led by Kulikov, Myers, Trouba, Morrissey, Hendricks, Tanev and Adam Lowry as well as Hellebuyck, they haven’t been hurt from the lack of discipline.

Since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets have only have made the playoffs once, going out swiftly on that occasion in a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks in 2015. To find their last playoff success you have to go all the way back to 1987 when Dale Hawerchuk and the Jets upended the Calgary Flames in six games in the first round.

It’s looking good, at this point in the season, that this Jets club has what it takes to end the 31-year postseason drought.

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CBC | Sports News