As we approach the midway point of the 2014-15 National Hockey League season, the Winnipeg Jets look to be for real. Despite getting off to a slow start and having their blueline decimated by injury, the Jets have found a way to stay in the playoff race in the Western Conference. While it has truly been a team effort, much of the credit for their surprising play can be linked to the goaltending tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, as well as head coach Paul Maurice.
Edmonton - December 30, 2014 - It was not that long ago when things did not look overly optimistic for Winnipeg’s beloved hockey team. After winning two of their first seven games to start the year, some believed the Jets did not have the necessary pieces to right the ship and were in for a long season…maybe even a lottery pick.
Enter Paul Maurice, doing what head coaches are supposed to do, providing a game plan that works for his collection of solid but far from a spectacular lineup. With that said, it is a roster with good size and some skill. The players for their part did what hockey players don’t always do, they bought in to Maurice’s game plan and the results have been very positive.
Essentially Maurice is employing a defense first system and when things get dodgy…they simply collapse to the front and protect the net. You need to have a few things to pull it off but most of all you need players committed to winning first and padding stats second.
The fact the former Carolina Hurricanes bench boss has not only got the buy in but also shown improvement in the standings, is a clear illustration of Maurice’s development a coach and proof positive he has the respect of those inside the room. Should the Jets make the playoffs, they will need a minimum 12 - 15 point improvement over last year, the veteran coach would definitely garner some attention as a potential Jack Adams nominee.
But the distance from here to the playoffs is a long way away with many landmines likely ahead: Injuries, fatigue from travel, an unhealthy fixation with Instagram, and the like. With that said, the Jets would be best served to focus on what they can control on a game to game basis. That being player management and in particular, the deployment of their netminders.
Typically when a coach has a hot goalie he rides him as long as the streak lasts and there is no doubt both coaching and management are breathing a collective sigh of relief over the resurgence of Ondrej Pavelec. But with the Jets travel schedule being what it is, trying to push 60 plus games out of the Czech native could be risky. There have already been signs of this occurring, most notably when it comes to back to back games.
This concern was underscored on November 14th when the Jets dropped the first of two in a tight 2-1 decision to Nashville Predators. Maybe Maurice wanted to show confidence in his No. 1 or perhaps he just wanted to keep thing consistent but he opted to the make the move of starting Pavelec the next night against the Minnesota Wild and the team suffered a 4-3 setback. In the old days when Ducky and Steen wore the Jets’ jersey, having to score five goals in a game was not uncommon.
Fast forward to the present day and five goals in a game is pretty rare and overcoming a four goal deficit is a very steep hill to climb. To be precise, the Jets have scored five or more goals on five separate occasions this season and in today’s NHL, that isn’t too shabby. To Maurice’s credit he recognized the danger and made necessary adjustments.
Michael Hutchinson has played well, as he currently leads the league in save percentage, and his head coach has started to use him with far greater regularity. So when the next back to back came Nov. 25 and 26th against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres, Maurice started with Hutchinson against Columbus (a 4-2 win) and switched back to Pavlelec the next night in what turned out to be a 2-1 victory over the Sabres. Both tenders were solid and the Jets counted four points in the bank.
As they approach the midway point of their season, one has to wonder if Winnipeg Jets have the horses and momentum to carry them to their first playoff berth since the early 90’s. While they have had a litany of defensive issues come to forefront over the last few weeks, most of it coming in the form of injury but if they can find a way to survive, maybe the Jets will find a way to clinch that elusive post-season spot.