Thirty-six down, 20 to go for the Winnipeg Jets. And a dozen of those remaining games are head-to-head battles against the three other probable playoff participants in the NHL Scotia North Division later this spring.
So the Jets are very much in control of their own destiny after surviving, and perhaps even thriving, through what was the most challenging portion of their schedule. Monday’s 5-1 win at Calgary saw Winnipeg go 8-5-1 through a 14-game, 26-day stretch that included 12 games on the road.
That they managed to maintain almost perfect health, with the exception of the left hand injury Nathan Beaulieu suffered in the 4-3 win at Toronto on March 9, which was a story unto itself.
But Winnipeg’s ability to shrug off a lopsided defeat in Montreal, and a pair of hard-fought decisions in Edmonton that did not go their way, certainly paved the way for them to be sitting in second place in the division heading into the home stretch.
On March 3 when they hit the road for Montreal, the Jets were nine points behind the Leafs and one ahead of third-place Edmonton. Going into Tuesday night’s action, they remain one point up on the Oilers, but have whittled eight points off the gap between themselves and Toronto. So for the past “almost” four weeks, Winnipeg was certainly able to hold serve as they prepare for Wednesday’s start of a two-game series at Bell MTS Place versus the Buds.
The biggest factor in shaving Toronto’s lead was taking five of a possible six points during a three-game set at Scotiabank Arena. There is no doubt Connor Hellebuyck was a difference maker in the 4-3 overtime win and 4-3 overtime loss in the first two games. But the Jets’ closeout performance in the 5-2 Game 3 victory stands as their most complete 60-minute effort of the season to date. And it’s certainly a point of reference for the team to feel good about heading into their fifth meeting of 2021 with the Maple Leafs.
Both teams are blessed with depth up front. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are having all-star-calibre seasons for Toronto. But Winnipeg’s trio of Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor are right there with them. And for every John Tavares, William Nylander and Zach Hyman, the Jets can answer with a Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny or Andrew Copp. The stats bear that out as the two teams are dead even at 3.31 goals per game.
The Leafs have a significant edge in 5-on-5 play, having outscored opponents by a 75-59 margin compared to 73-66 for Winnipeg. But the respective powerplays operate at an almost identical clip, with the slight edge to the Jets, who have been trending up compared to Toronto somewhat levelling off from its torrid start to the season.
The Leafs have a bit of an edge in overall team defence, but Hellebuyck is coming off a four-game stretch that saw him stop 114 of 118 shots for a .966 save percentage. And the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is probably going to have to be all of that and more, especially with former L.A. King Jack Campbell (6-0, 1.48, .945) having wrestled away the net from inconsistent Frederik Andersen and expected to be ready to go after sitting out Monday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Edmonton.
But Hellebuyck is still seen as a difference maker, and so could that third line of Copp, Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton for Winnipeg that has certainly been one of the best in the division — if not the entire league.
Six games against Toronto, three apiece versus Edmonton and Montreal, and five still to play against Ottawa. No doubt all four North Division contenders will look to further strengthen themselves between now and April 12. And as we saw last Sunday in Dallas, when Florida lost stud defenceman Aaron Ekblad for the next 12 weeks, there are no guarantees when it comes to good health and a key player being taken out of the equation.
But all things being equal, these final six weeks figure to be about as favourable a scenario as a Winnipeg Jets fan could ask for.