The Jets put on a terrific performance for a national audience, showing their speed down the wings, their size along the boards, and their top-6 talent on the scoresheet. A couple bad goals that will send Travis over the moon in his Pavelec Performance Tracker put the contest into overtime, but it didn’t take away from the dizzying joy of beating the Leafs.
The Jets first goal, a wrister from the slot by Scheifele, came when Kulemin was checked trying to make a play along the boards. That led Don Cherry to rant about how Kulemin makes $3M for 7 goals a season, which was hilarious because Cherry makes almost a million and hasn’t made a point in a decade.
Blake Wheeler had made it 2-0 before Cherry had his weekly chance to embarrass Ron MacLean by association, though, after he stormed around the Toronto penalty killers with speed and buried it five hole on Reimer.
Six minutes into the second, with Ellerby in the box for boarding, a powerplay hammer by Phaneuf revealed that Pavelec doesn’t track the play and relies entirely on seeing the puck. He didn’t see it, so it went in the net.
But the Jets answered right back with a Little tip on an Enstrom powerplay point shot… also on a boarding call [X-Files music]. And a weak wrister through traffic from Bogosian less than a minute later would end Reimer’s night.
At 4-1 midway through the 2nd period, it didn’t feel like the Leafs had any hope to avoid embarrassment. But not to be out-done by the then yanked James Reimer, Ondrej Pavelec turned in a woeful 30 minutes of hockey. As things unraveled for the Jets on awful goals from distance by noted snipers Troy Bodie and Tim Gleason to end the second, Pavelec lovers noticably stopped tweeting about his 1.60 GAA and .942 sv % in his first five games under Maurice.
After a December with a 3.87 GAA and .863 save percentage in 10 starts, Pavelec put together 5 strong games since Maurice was hired. Millen used the broadcast euphemism for ‘he’s just on a streak’ by noting that he struggles with consistency. Yeah. Something like that. His seasons stats stand at 2.97 and .902. That would be his worst season as a starter, but not by much, sadly.
The Leafs’ tying goal wasn’t his fault, though, so I should stop piling on the single most obvious (remaining!) reason the Jets have missed the playoffs three years running. A scrambled defensive effort between the point and half-boards by Scheifele and Wheeler meant Bogosian got played high-low, and when Phil Kessel is the low trigger man, well, hard to blame a goalie.
But hey, that just meant a few more minutes of high flying Jets action. The OT period was one of the most thrilling we’ve seen all season as the Jets were determined to come away with the win. Opening with the passing and pressure of Little and Ladd, continuing with the speed of Wheeler and then Kane bullying his way down the ice like twice, the Jets looked like an impossibly athletic club. Bernier had done a better job than Reimer at turning aside the rushes of the Jets, but when Byfuglien took a pass at the red line as the last man, stormed across the blue line and cut for the middle, the Leafs defenders were managing their gaps like they were all Mark Stuarts. Buf made it to the top of the slot and wired on through Bernier for the winner.
The Jets top line is just outrageously good, and it was a lot of fun watching Frolik in this game. It seemed like he had to score as he spent the whole game creating chances in the offensive end. It didn’t happen, but his unit let the Jets in corsi rating, and were the forward group on for the Bogosian goal as well Little’s powerplay goal. They weren’t beaten for any at even strength (even though two of them were random lotteries as far as the skaters were concerned). They were a cut above even the Leafs’ top group, who they matched up directly against.
How about that Evander Kane / Blake Wheeler duo? Yowza, the speed! The Jets neutral zone play since Maurice has been so improved that the Jets frequently attack with numbers. I know, numbers! Putting Kane and Wheeler together has meant that we see fewer one-and-done plays from each of them in a game, and as a fan, you can’t put a price on the thrill of watching those two create offence in transtion. Add in Mark Scheifele and his off-pace offence, and the mixture is like astonauts, water, and orange sugar crystals.
Scheifele’s defence is still a challenge, but a more clear sense of defensive assignment has helped him, as has the most typical role of the centre to go below the goal line. Noel used to have his defenders work below the goal line, with the centre in the low slot. But in Scheifele’s case, Frolik did that job (and his own), Scheifele played rover, and occassionally they both ended up at the point together. Under Maurice, Scheifele still has moments where his brain is in neutral in his own end (like the Kessel goal), but at least he has a clear job.
Maurice deserves to be in this good section for a bunch of reasons. Remember when the powerplay was a rigid umbrella where the only shot taken was from the middle point? That was earlier this year. Like, 20 games ago. Things were already improving under Noel, no doubt, but this game saw the Jets score two differently styled powerplay goals on three attempts. But that’s just gravy to the process. The team has tightened their neutral zone play defensively and smoothed out their defensive zone assignments. They don’t do the ‘Noel Shell’ in the defensive zone, that passive would-be-man defence. The best part, though, is the breakout. The Jets have a breakout! Instead of flying the zone and waiting for the defenders to make a 70 foot pass, the Jets make two and even three passes in tight formation to exit the zone. Like an NHL team. And the result is that from defence to offence and back to defence, the team isn’t spread out vertically, has puck support, and looks like a different hockey club.
There are still problems, but the difference in 6 games is remarkable.
Here’s the thing about these Jets – there is a serious problem despite all the wins. One of them is in net. Pavelec has had a good run, and we can all expect his numbers to improve as the Jets’ defensive work has. But it seems very unlikely that we see his numbers improve to even league average (.913) would would be near his best season on record. Yes, a .910 would beat the eight-whatever we were seeing in December. But Devan Dubnyk lost his job over consistently having a bad goal every game. Reimer the same. The margin is small in the NHL, and this is the umpteenth example of the Jets being in control of a game that almost slipped away on awful goals against.
Dustin Byfuglien scored the game winner, so hard to say he was that bad. But the truth is, his line is a defensive nightmare, and Byfuglien is only effective as a forward in board play and in front of the net. In recent games, he hasn’t even gotten there as his line can’t control the puck from one end to the other. Setoguchi is looking like a poor rental, and can’t be happy playing for the Jets considering how he’s been treated. We know he’s a talented hockey player, we’ve seen it. But he’s a terrible left winger. And Byfuglien is not a good right winger, either. He has more points as a defenceman than as a forward since he was made a forward. In fact, he has 4 points as a defenceman and 2 as a forward since the game against Columbus, and these were his first points in three games.
Moreover, the fourth line was taken to school in this game. Wow. Wright, Peluso, and Thorburn isn’t a good line. Who would have guessed it?
In all, the Jets continue to show a deep divide in their forward group between a very effective top-6 and a troubling bottom six. I’d very much like to see Byfuglien in this tighter system, to see if his turnovers would even continue. And as the second highest scoring defenceman of the last four years behind just Erik Karlsson, I think it might help the team to trade their struggling third line winger back for a top pairing defenceman.