The Jets 2.1 are 9-2 since the fateful day between games against Columbus and Phoenix. Major problems on the team remain. Thorburn is playing up the lineup. The defence has limited depth and Mark Stuart is playing over his head. The goalie is putting up wins for the first time in his career, but career back-up and draft-bust Al Montoya continues to post the better individual numbers. Setoguchi is still awkward on the left wing and Dustin Byfuglien is half the forward that he is a defender.
In spite of confusing lines and sub-optimal team utilization, the Jets are genuinely, truly a much better hockey club than they were this time last month. Tighter formations in the breakout were obvious by game 3, and have now been referenced by the players publicly. High forward support in defensive transition has made for neutral zone pressure, let the defence close their gaps, and cut down on the 5-alarm 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s. A forecheck pressure point that doesn’t require two forwards below the goal line has tightened the spacing of the 5-man unit and suddenly players who looked like problems playing on their tiny island are looking capable as part of a team effort.
I’ve been meaning to write an ‘I told you so’ article this week (at no one in particular, I’m just vain). This team came close to blowing up the whole project. The Atlanta 5 (despite there being 12 players who played NHL games for the Thrashers who also played them for the Jets this year) was targeted in the media. Dustin Byfuglien, arguably the best single player on the squad and a unique talent, was considered a liability by a segment of the fan base and was listed as ‘addition by subtraction.’ That all feels like a bad dream now. Like a 2 year training camp of poor positioning, bad coaching, and perfunctory roster moves.
The Jets return to Washington as a different squad. A year ago, the Capitals turned the Jets’ season on its ear in a 10-1 pair of losses in March. The Caps went from zero to hero and took the division; the Jets slowly sank from the Southeast Champion to four points behind the Islanders for the final playoff spot. It’s been a lot of lumps since then for these Jets, but they’re back in the hunt and can’t seem to avoid wins.
- Ladd – Little – Frolik
- Thorburn – Scheifele – Wheeler
- Setoguchi – Jokinen – Byfuglien
- Tangradi – Wright – Peluso
These are the lines of a coach who believes in the impact of confidence in creating wins. The team clearly has some confidence, but these are not ideal lines. Evander Kane makes a world of difference as the team’s best corsi forward against the second toughs, not to mention his scoring and physical skills. Despite scoring the game winner in Carolina, Thorburn is a painful replacement. Only the injured and ineffective Matt Halischuk spends more time watching pucks get directed at this goaltender while on the ice.
But that’s okay, because Setoguchi still can’t manage the left boards and Byfuglien is a boogey-man who can’t get out from under the bed on most plays. He’s more threatening as an idea than effective as a forward. Still, Maurice has been creative with him, and he continues to drive offence on the powerplay from the backend, and even roam the offensive zone as the creative and dangerous player he is. More support has meant fewer plays where he just circles the net to buy time. And he’s certainly engaging whenever he can.
Frolik – a staple of the third line under Noel – is showing he’s a premier forward in the NHL. Tough minutes and the guy doesn’t make a mistake. He has the puck on a string, never gives up the inside lane defensively, and is always on the right side of the puck. An incredible forward and one of the central reasons the team is winning. As an added bonus, the pressure off Wheeler has led to 13 points in 11 games under Maurice.
- Enstrom – Bogosian
- Stuart – Trouba
- Pardy – Ellerby
The GM made a committment to Pavelec that, in many ways, could be the hill he dies on. The team is loyal, yes, and they’re improved of late, sure. But Jets fans know the pattern – heat up at deadline time when other teams are putting things in neutral and recovering from injury, only to hit a tough schedule on the back 40 and miss out on the second season.
If Chevy does his usual – sticks with his UFAs, doesn’t buy at the deadline and just crosses his fingers – it’s possible this goalie is the difference between a playoff birth and another wasted season for the third year in a row. Does the GM last a 4th year with that attitude? How about a 5th?
We’ve all made mistakes at work, and we all know you sometimes just have to admit it and move on. (I’ll admit I’ve never made a $20M mistake, though.) Right now, Cheveldayoff is asking Paul Maurice to cover for him. But an .863 sv % in December gave way to an .894 in January. Things aren’t exactly turning around, and his season total of .902 still represents his worst season with Winnipeg (but not his worst season ever… let that sink in) and puts him 37th among regular netminders.
- Erat – Backstrom – Ovechkin
- Johansson – Wellman – Brouwer
- Chimera – Fehr – Ward
- Laich – Beagle – Wilson
Holy hell is this a mess. These are the lines from DailyFaceoff.com, but it’s hard to imagine things are in such a dire state.
It must be deadline time, since Martin Erat is being showcased. But former second line stalwart Brooks Laich has 9 points in 42 games and is bleeding shots against. Along with hopeful rookie senstation Tom Wilson, the team is boasting a tremendously over-hyped bottom-6. And to go with it, ex-Jet Eric Fehr is out of position and Wild castaway Casey Wellman is where Mike Ribeiro was a year ago. Of course, the missing element is Mikhail Grabovski, but his absence is almost as devastating as Evander Kane’s to the Jets.
So… this Ovechkin character is good, you say? How good does he have to be to get the team out of a three way tie for 11th in the East?
- Alzer – Carlson
- Orlov – Carrick
- Brouillette – Wey
There has been a lot of talk about the Capitals’ goaltenders falling apart and being the problem area on the team. Well, the Caps have played 6 (and it will be 7 tonight if Brouillette gets his first NHL game) defenders this season with fewer than 100 NHL games of experience. You’re forgiven for not knowing Brouillette or Wey (who played his first and only pro game on December 7th, 2013). Heck, you’d be forgiven for not knowing Connor Carrick or Dimitry Orlov. The Mike Green injury is just one piece to a puzzle that includes all sorts of fill-ins, nobodies, and rookies.
Sum It Up
This matchup has some elements from last March. It feels like the Jets are starting to take control while the Capitals are flapping in the wind, eager to give up two points. But the game against Carolina was not good, even by Maurice’s estimation, and it will be up to the Jets to respond with more structure and support.
The Jets have the chance for a cathartic win on their way out of the basement.