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Jets' late-season tear has players optimistic

Team has won six straight games heading into Saturday's finale

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

WINNIPEG - It's a franchise mark the Jets are both proud and equally dismissive about.

Since it relocated to Winnipeg back in 2011, this team had never put together a winning streak longer than five.

Until now.

With Thursday's victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Jets have now won six in a row for the first time in our city, and will have a chance at a seventh as they conclude the 2016-17 season on Saturday against the Nashville Predators.

Still, the Jets are having trouble taking solace in this late-season run, knowing that for the second straight year, they will not be playing past the first week in April.

"We're in a block of games where it's been difficult to get that emotion level up to play, and we've done that," Head Coach Paul Maurice began, "(but) at the same time, we're finishing the season against five playoff teams that have now mentally moved on to the playoffs.

"I'm not looking at this saying, 'Hey, we've won six in a row. We're right there and we're starting next season 6-0,' in terms of what I take out of it. We go through the video, we run our normal day, we run our normal things, but the two points in the standings right now aren't very valuable."

Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice

While critics would point to a lack of pressure contributing to the team's winning streak, former Stanley Cup champ Dustin Byfuglien was the first to refute that claim. Having seen his fair share of games in just about every situation imaginable, he believes there's even more pressure at this time of year when you're out of the race.

That, in his mind, is a positive heading into next year.

"This time of year is one of the toughest times to play," he said. "Guys are fighting for jobs next year and others are trying to establish themselves and earn that full-time NHL spot.

"It's good for our organization going into the summer. To say, 'OK, why did we beat these guys at this time of year?' compared to the middle or beginning of the season. Where we've come, from beginning to end, we've done a lot of good things."

Consider this:

The Jets have eight players - and all but one in the 24-and-under age group - who have surpassed their career high in points, and could increase those totals even further in the final game of the season tomorrow night.

The list looks like this:

Mark Scheifele - 81 (32G, 49A), Patrik Laine - 64 (36G, 28A), Nikolaj Ehlers - 64 (25G, 39A), Mathieu Perreault - 45 (13G, 32A), Jacob Trouba - 33 (8G, 25A), Adam Lowry - 28 (15G, 13A), Josh Morrissey - 20 (6G, 14A) and Andrew Copp - 17 (9G, 8A).

This doesn't even include the work of first-year captain Blake Wheeler, who's put up the second-highest total of his career with 73 (25G, 48A), and Byfuglien, a defensive workhorse who, for the fifth time in his career, has exceeded the 50-point barrier (13G, 38A).

Offensively, the Jets have become one of the most lethal teams in the National Hockey League, and there's no reason to believe the growth can't continue into next year.

"Even though we're not making the playoffs this year, [the six-game winning streak] shows the kind of team we are and where we want to be next year and for years to come," Ehlers said.

"We've got to be able to play a simple game when it's not really working for us, and we've got to be able to do that for 82 games. We know we're not going to win 82 games next year, but we want to give ourselves a chance to win every single game and that's what we've been doing the past 10 games. That's why we've been doing so well."

Video: PRACTICE | Nikolaj Ehlers

Ehlers, in particular, has taken a major step forward after a promising rookie season. The 21-year-old nearly doubled his offensive yield and is showing signs of a 30-goal, point-per-game player sometime in the future.

"I've just tried to work on all the small details that Paul and the coaching staff have told me about and helped me through," Ehlers said.

"I feel like I've taken a big step but there's still a ways to go."

That's the mindset many are taking into the off-season - to come back better than ever in the fall.

"I didn't have many expectations when I came here. My one and only goal was just to make the team and I'm happy I did that and played almost a full season," said Laine, whose 36 goals and 64 points have him three back of Toronto forward Auston Matthews for the rookie scoring lead. "I'm proud of myself, of course. It was a good season for me and I learned a lot, and hopefully I can use everything I've learned to help me next year."

Video: PRACTICE | Patrik Laine

UP AND DOWN

After being recalled from the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, prior to the recent two-game road swing, Kyle Connor will play tomorrow against the Predators.

The 17th pick in the 2015 NHL Draft started the season with the Jets and had four points (1G, 3A) in 19 games before being sent down to the Moose on Dec. 9. Since then, he was one been one of the AHL's hottest players, recording at least a point in 14 of his last 17 games (15G, 9A), and was recently named the AHL's Player of the Week.

Overall, the product of Shelby Township, Michigan, has 42 points (23G, 19A) in 49 AHL games.

It is unclear who will come out of the lineup in Connor's place.

Video: DAL@WPG: Connor finishes the rush for first NHL goal

In the meantime, the Jets did make one other roster move on Friday, sending goaltender Eric Comrie and forward Jack Roslovic - both of whom made their NHL debuts in Columbus - back to the Moose for their final four games of the season.

TAKING ON THE WORLD

Last year the Jets had five players participate in the annual IIHF World Hockey Championship, and it looks as though they have an equally strong representation again this year.

After helping Canada win gold in 2016, Mark Scheifele is reported to be attending once again. Tyler Myers, who has missed all but 11 games this year, is recovering nicely from a lower-body injury and could be of interest to the red and white as well.

Other possibilities include Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba (USA), Nikolaj Ehlers (Denmark), Marko Dano (Slovakia) and Patrik Laine (Finland), among others.

While the majority of those players have expressed interest, Laine was rather lukewarm about the idea in his lengthy media briefing at MTS Centre Friday. Laine himself said he was a "pretty tired" after a long season that included the World Cup, four pre-season games and a mid-season injury.

"He's played enough hockey for two men over the last year and a half," Maurice said. "He's found that you're not getting to the end of an NHL season healthy. Everbody's got something now and he's got some things that he's dealing with. … He does what he wants, but he doesn't need to go there for me."

The tournament kicks off May 5 in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany.

LATE-NIGHT FLIGHT

The Jets were delayed for about an hour last night in Columbus due to an airport security issue at Toronto's Pearson International, putting the arrival of their Airbus A319 aircraft into Columbus at about 11:00pm ET. As a result, many of the players didn't get to bed until about 2:00am CT (3:00am ET), so the team chose to forego practice and hold an off-ice workout instead.

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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