At this stage of the race in the Eastern Conference of the National Hockey League, the only thing that matters to Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel is winning hockey games.
He knows his team has shortcomings. He knows his team has injuries to key players. But he also knows that if the players he puts in the lineup every night skate hard and check hard, his undermanned Jets can still overcome all the adversity it faces.
Monday night in Ottawa, the Winnipeg Jets outskated and outchecked the Ottawa Senators. And even though they still scored only two goals, it was enough. Defensively, the Jets were almost perfect in a 2-0 shutout of the red-hot Sens.
It could be easy to dismiss this victory as just one of those nights when a team like the Senators, a team that had won four straight games, simply underestimated a banged-up opponent coming into its own building. That kind of thing happens more often than you might think in the NHL.
To that, I say rubbish. Sure, it often appeared as if Ottawa was skating in sand, but that might have had as much to do with the checking efforts of the Jets as it did the sluggishness of the Senators. Fact is, by every form of measurement, the Jets outplayed the Senators and, in the end, beat them quite handily. The Jets certainly worked harder. They outshot Ottawa 35-25. They blocked 23 other shots. Chris Mason didn’t have to work particularly hard to record his second shutout and sixth win of the season.
"I thought we worked hard tonight and I thought we checked hard," said Claude Noel, during his post-game talk with the media on TSN 1290 Sports Radio. "The puck was in our end a lot in the third period but we blocked some shots and we kept them on the perimeter. They didn’t get that many chances. We took advantage of a couple of opportunities to score and we did a good job in our zone. The guys we needed to have step up tonight did step up."
The Jets put a halt to a three-game losing streak, improved to 2-5-0 in January and won for the seventh time on the road this season (7-11-4). With 47 points on the year, they are still 10th in the East, but now only two points behind ninth-place Toronto and three behind eighth- and seventh-place Pittsburgh and Washington. They are five points behind sixth-place New Jersey and that means they’d better be prepared to play just as stifling a brand of hockey in Newark on Tuesday as they did in Ottawa on Monday.
The Jets are now 21-19-5 after 45 games. As the Atlanta Thrashers last year, they were 22-16-7 after the first 45 games. Not sure if that means anything, except to say that this team has struggled to score (they had 143 goals after 45 games last year and they’ve scored only 115 goals this year) this season and that still must be addressed.
But their commitment to defensive hockey was never more evident than it was Monday night. Especially, in the first two periods.
If you can’t score, you’d better stop the other team from scoring and perhaps Jets fans should become accustomed to games like the one their beloveds played in Ottawa on Monday night.
After all, if this crew intends to make the playoffs, that’s the way they’re going to have to play for the rest of the season.