The Winnipeg Jets began “The Homestand” on Nov. 29. They had 13 of 15 games at home and they needed to grab at least 20 of 26 possible points at MTS Centre.
It was a simple assignment, but it did not come without a certain degree of difficulty. Especially after the Jets lost the first game at home in late November, 6-4, to Ottawa.
So along comes December. The Jets had 12 of 14 games at home in the month and the team had to make some noise. After all, come January, the Jets will play 12 of 16 away from MTS Centre – 15 of their next 21 away from home — and if they didn’t make some hay in December, they could end up a long way from the playoffs come the middle of February. It was win in December and then try to keep the ship together.
Saturday night, the Jets did what they had to do. With a 3-2 victory over the slumping Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets finished the month of December with a record of 10-3-1 — 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, it was mission accomplished.
So how did the Jets go from 9-11-4 to 19-14-5? Five reasons:
1. Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason: The Jets goaltenders had some tremendous games during the stretch. Even in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Islanders, Pavelec stole the point. In fact, other than the ugly 7-1 loss in Detroit, which was nothing more than a blip on the screen, Pavelec made the Jets a better team. Mason pitched in with two big wins – a huge 1-0 overtime victory against Los Angeles was his doing almost single-handedly – and is now 5-2-0 on the season. It was Brian Burke who said, “We call it the Stanley Cup playoffs because we can’t call it goalie.” You could paraphrase that and say. “We call it the Winnipeg Jets 2011-12 season because we can’t call it goalie.” The Jets have moved from 12th to sixth because their goaltender stole at least five games and at least 11 points.
2. All hands on deck. The Jets leading scorer, Evander Kane, has 18 goals and 11 assists and is 57th in scoring in the NHL. However, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of the game, it seems that somebody always steps up. If it’s not Bryan Little, it’s Andrew Ladd or it’s Blake Wheeler. The Jets have a potential superstar in Kane, but he’s not there yet. Right now this team is scoring by committee and for the time being, at least, it’s working. However, on or before the traded deadline, the Jets are going to have to after some scoring or the playoff run will be short.
3. The Jets survived the loss of Tobias Enstrom. When he was injured, Enstrom was playing 25-32 minutes a game. He was not only a workhorse, he was the steadiest influence on the team. When he went down, the Jets were a 12th place team. When he came back they were 11th, but had gained three points on the teams in the Top 8. It could have been a lot worse and with him back, the Jets not only have a full compliment of NHL-level defensemen, but they’ve won three straight games since Dustin Byfulgien was injured (more about that in a future post).
4. Claude Noel. He is a journalist’s dream, an eccentric, insightful, talkative head coach who is NOT afraid to say what’s on his mind. His post-game stream-of-consciousness news conferences are becoming the highlight of every game. He has made, what have appeared to be some strange moves at times, but it’s impossible to criticize any of them. The Jets started the season as a 12th place team heading directly toward 12th place. Today they are a sixth place team with at least a playoff hope heading into the January-February road wars. Noel has had a great deal to do with that.
5. The crowd at MTS Centre. No wonder these Jets don’t play as well on the road. The home crowd in Winnipeg is a phenomenon. The 15,004 who show up inside the tiny boutique arena in downtown Winnipeg (and make no mistake, every seat is taken) every single night start screaming before the game and don’t stop until their beloved Jets salute them from centre ice after the final buzzer. Long-time Alberta journalist Bruce Penton compared it to a British soccer crowd. “They don’t get tired,” he said. “It’s just relentless.” And despite that lousy little excuse after a 5-1 season–opening loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the Jets have warmed to the crowd. They love it. They live for it and if there can actually be a “seventh man” he/she lives in Winnipeg.
These Jets are by no means a playoff-bound team. But they grabbed a hold of their December homestand and skated with it. Now, with January upon us, we’ll really get to see how good they are.