As the "Leafs Suck! Leafs Suck!" chant reverberated through MTS Centre on New Year’s Eve, the Winnipeg Jets did exactly what they had to do.
Thanks to goals by Zach Bogosian (pictured: the Jets all-star calibre defenseman), Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler (with the eventual winner at 10:50 of the second period on the power play), the Jets beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 and completed the task set out by the coaching staff, management, the players themselves and most Jets fans — get at least 20 points in the month of December.
Reality sets in for the Jets now. They head out to face the Canadiens in Montreal on Wednesday, the Leafs in Toronto on Thursday, then go to Buffalo next Saturday and Boston next Tuesday. It will be the first four road games in a month in which they play nine of 13 games away from home.
Then, for the first 16 days of February, the young Jets play six of eight on the road. In total, that’s 15 of their next 21 away from "the seventh man," at MTS Centre and it will, no doubt, be a real test for a team that is 5-8-4 on the road this season.
And that’s why Saturday night’s win over Toronto was so important. With the victory, the Jets finished 10-3-1 in December — that’s 21 of a possible 28 points. They were 9-2-1 at home — 19 of a possible 24 points. They started the month 9-11-4 and in 12th place in the East. They finished at 19-14-5, tied for sixth in the East. In mid-November, the Jets trailed Toronto by 12 points. Saturday night, they moved two points ahead of the Leafs.
In a nutshell, the Jets picked up the ground they needed to pick up with 15 of the next 21 games on the road.
Now that’s not to say that the Jets won’t finish above .500 during the next 47 days. They certainly could rise to a difficult occasion and surprise everybody by keeping the streak alive. They have, after all, won three straight and one of those games, a 4-1 win in Colorado, was earned away from the thunderous din of MTS Centre.
"The first two periods (Saturday night), I thought we were just awesome," said veteran Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, as the Jets outshot the Leafs 28-12 through the first 40 minutes. "They brought some real pressure in the third period but we held on.
"We now have to get our road record up, we know that. We know our road record needs work, but we got a big win in Colorado, so we need to find a way to do that a lot more often going forward. That was a nice game.
"When you’re on the road, your only focus is to get out with a win. Look, it’s easy to play in this building. It’s not hard to get challenged and be ready to play here. These fans are amazing. They just want you to perform, so if you can’t get fired up here, you really have to look at yourself in the mirror. It’s different on the road. We have to find a way to challenge ourselves and stay focused on winning."
Saturday night, the Jets beat a struggling team that played a tough game, especially in the third period. The Leafs gave it everything they had in the final 20 minutes. but Ondrej Pavelec (pictured) shut them down while the defense in front of him was outstanding — a defence that has won three straight and allowed only three goals without an injured Dustin Byfuglien in the lineup.
The best of the bunch on Saturday was Bogosian, who played 23 minutes and 14 seconds and not only scored a goal but blocked a shot and had six hits.
Meanwhile, forward Blake Wheeler was solid, as well. He played 22:33 and had the winning goal and an assist.
"It was big win, we’re feeling pretty good about it," said Wheeler, who has a five-game points streak and 22 points in the last 20 games. "This month was huge. We dug ourselves a bit of a hole in the first month and a half. We knew we had to play well this month in order to put ourselves in a good position heading into a real tough part of our schedule. We’ve done that and we’ll enjoy it for a day or two. but we’ll have to be ready on Wednesday heading into Montreal."
The Jets indeed got the job done in December. They have every right to feel good about themselves.
Now comes six weeks of truth. If they survive 15 of the next 21 on the road, it’s going to be a fun spring in Winnipeg.