ANALYSIS: Manic March could determine how high Jets fly

The Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault (85) and Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Tatar (90) go for the puck during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
The Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault (85) and Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Tatar (90) go for the puck during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

It stood out like a sore thumb, right from the time the NHL schedule was revealed.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice began referencing it as training camp began and it has arrived on the doorstep of the hockey club he guides from behind the bench.

Seventeen games in 31 days, with two sets of back-to-backs, four games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, four against the Montreal Canadiens, four against the Vancouver Canucks, three against the Calgary Flames and two against the Edmonton Oilers.

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This monumental task begins Monday night, with a tilt against a Canucks team that has collected just 18 of 48 available points so far after entering the season with high hopes after being the last Canadian team standing in the Edmonton bubble.

Opening this stretch against a desperate opponent should only help the Jets heighten their focus.

“We all know how important points are. You don’t want to get down in the series, we saw that with Montreal and their push last game,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry.

“They seemed to throw everything toward the net and create those second-chance pucks. They were really on it with their feet and didn’t give us a whole lot coming through the neutral zone. They didn’t really give us a whole lot of easy ice.

Winnipeg Jets forward Adam Lowry answers question via webcam. Winnipeg Jets

“And the same thing with Vancouver, those were two tough games we played in Vancouver, not a lot of space out there. It seemed like every puck they’re battling hard on.

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“It’s important that you get off to a good start against teams like that. They’re looking to get a little confidence, whether it’s a good start to the game, a good first period. So if you can take that away and start building your game, you might be able to put a little doubt in their mind.”

Things remain a bit bunched in the North Division standings, but part of that is due to the games played discrepancy — with the Jets already having four games in hand on the Canucks.

March is when many of those games will be made up, which heightens the importance of this two-game set with the Canucks, which wraps up Tuesday night.

Not only is March busy in terms of volume, the Jets are going to adopt the role of road warriors, since 12 of those 17 games will be played outside of BellMTS Place.

This will be a gruelling stretch both physically and mentally, but it also provides an opportunity for the Jets to get into a rhythm.

“The key is going to be being able to reset mentally and turn it on mentally,” said Jets defenceman Neal Pionk.

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“When we have a game, you’re going to have to turn that mental focus on and get that laser focus on the game.

“On the days off, the few that we have, we have to find a way to get away from the game and find a way to relax — at least myself personally, that’s what I’ll be doing. It’s going to be a switch that we’ll have to find. It’s going to be a grind but I think we’ll get through it.”

The grind is impossible to overlook, but the Jets can’t use the hectic nature as a crutch either when it comes to trying to survive it.

“So I won’t talk about it again. Unless we’ve got a shift-length issue, I’m not going to bring up the fact that you’re fatigued, because everybody’s going to be just as fatigued,” said Maurice.

“We don’t want that excuse. These guys are all going to be dead tired by the end of the month, but so will the whole league. So we won’t bring it up again.

“We just wanted to make sure that what we said we were going to do, the process that we put in place last month to deal with the heavy schedule, that we made sure that we follow it.”

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – Feb. 25'
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – Feb. 25

Riding a season-high four-game winning streak, these Jets are beginning to take shape, carrying a record of 13-6-1 as they push toward the midway point of this 56-game schedule.

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As anticipated, the strength of this group has been true to form — thanks to rock-solid goaltending and a talented forward group.

Sure, the defence corps remains a work in progress and the collective team defence will require further improvement throughout the campaign — with the goal of reducing the number of high-danger chances allowed still at the top of the to-do list.

When it comes to goaltending, Connor Hellebuyck is clearly doing his part, even if his numbers aren’t quite as eye-popping as last season.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, right, reacts as the Calgary Flames’ Sam Bennett crashes into him during first-period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Yes, there have been a few additional goals that would slide under the soft category, but Hellebuyck’s ability to quickly erase those from his memory has eliminated any potential sag from his teammates.

That was never clearer than Saturday night, when the only one of 41 shots to get past him was the bank job from Nick Suzuki from behind the goal line.

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Hellebuyck wasn’t happy about the goal, but it didn’t throw him off either.

He slammed the door immediately.

Brossoit’s ability to bounce back early in the season has been a critical component and his workload is about to increase this month — because he’s deserving and it will allow the Jets to both keep Hellebuyck in rhythm and keep him fresher for the stretch run.

When it comes to the forward group, the top two lines are leading the way, but the forward depth has provided a big boost, thanks to the offensive contributions from Andrew Copp (who did an excellent job filling in on the top-six when opportunity knocked), Lowry, Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault.

Trevor Lewis and Nate Thompson each have a goal, but Thompson’s was a game-winner.

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Nate Thompson Interview – Feb. 25'
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Nate Thompson Interview – Feb. 25

The high-octane offence has been on display, with three Jets already hitting double digits in goals (Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers with 11 and Kyle Connor with 10).

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Scheifele is among the NHL scoring leaders, with 18 of his 28 points coming during a career-best 11-game point streak that was snapped on Saturday.

Pierre-Luc Dubois has five points in his past three games and is just beginning to find his stride after a 14-day quarantine and having to pause two games into his fresh start because of a lower-body injury.

Dubois is going to move to centre eventually, but he’s embraced this temporary move — and his strength and power along the boards have been evident on a number of occasions.

The Jets enter this stretch one point behind the Oilers but have three games in hand.

The Maple Leafs have started to pull away from the pack at the top of the division. The Flames are showing signs of life

The Canucks are reeling, which also means they could show a level of desperation since they don’t want to slip into next-year country.

It’s probably a bit of an exaggeration to suggest these next two weeks could serve as a defining moment for this Jets team.

But if they want to keep pace with the pack or perhaps create some additional separation, they’ll need to find a way to keep pushing forward — in terms of both style of play and the ability to get results.

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Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for and is a contributor to the hockey coverage on CJOB.

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Pierre-Luc Dubois Interview – Feb. 25'
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Pierre-Luc Dubois Interview – Feb. 25

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