WINNIPEG -- The focus tonight for the Winnipeg Jets (26-32-4) is to get the home stand back on track. Standing in the way are the New York Islanders, who at 34-20-7, are third in the Metropolitan Division.
The Jets liked a lot of Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers. Up 2-1 over the Atlantic Division leaders after 40 minutes, Winnipeg had all the momentum. But two quick third-period goals by the visitors, and the two points left MTS Centre in Florida’s possession.
“It’s slipped away from us a few times,” said forward Blake Wheeler, the Jets leader in points with 57. “More often than not I think we’ve done a good job with the lead. Our biggest problem is when we’re behind a goal, we’re not able to mount much of anything in the third period. That will be something we need to look at. But we’re looking for positives here.”
There were positives to build on. Andrew Copp scored his first goal since Oct. 31, 2015 in Columbus. It was mere seconds away from being the eleventh shorthanded goal the Jets have scored this season. The ten they do have are second most in the NHL, only one back of Ottawa.
Copp played a total of 1:16 of his 8:35 ice time on the penalty kill. It’s a plan head coach Paul Maurice has to give younger players more of a role on special teams.
“We would be in the top five of the league from their end of the ice to our blue line, in terms of what happens to the puck after that. We don’t feel, while it has happened in a few instances, that what we’re doing up ice has cost us when we get to our back end,” said Maurice. “You’re going to see four or five of our six killers are going to be real young up front. We’re right in the middle of a process changing the way our PK looks, so we’ve got some growing pains with it.”
Should the Jets find themselves on the penalty kill tonight, they’ll be up against an Islanders team that sits in the top half of the league’s power play rankings. They’re even stronger down a man. The Islanders have killed off 87 per cent of the penalties against them, tops in the league.
But it hasn’t always been easy for the Islanders. In 2014-2015, they found themselves 26th in the NHL on the penalty kill at 76 per cent.
Maurice said following Tuesday’s loss to the Panthers that he saw a quickness in his team’s game through the first 40 minutes he hadn’t seen in a while. Forward Adam Lowry says that quickness helps the team all over the ice.
“Any time we’re moving at a high speed and have a lot of pace in our game, we’re on the puck, we’re on the fore check, we’re creating turn overs, and we’re getting out of our zone quickly,” he said. “I think that’s a big thing. Any time you can spend as little time as possible in your (defensive) zone, it’s a good recipe for success.”
The Jets will need that pace to slow down the Islanders who rank fourth in the NHL in goals scored. In Maurice’s mind, the Islanders have slowly evolved since a memorable playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.
“Flash forward to where they are now, they’ve added some defencemen, they’ve got a depth that they didn’t have, to maybe having possibly the best fourth line - if you want to call it that - in the league,” said Maurice.
“They’ve done a really good job of taking high-end offensive guys, the Tavares’ of the world, and molding them in to where they’re still productive but they play a very sound defensive game.”
But as always, the Jets are more concerned with their own play than that of their opponents. Wheeler says he’s looking forward to the opportunity to get the current five-game home stand back on track.
“We played a pretty good game last game. More or less that’s kind of embodied our entire season: Close, but able to get the job done,” he said. “I’d like to see us try to replicate that effort, especially in the first 40 minutes and if we can try to get a couple more past their goalie to build a little bit more of a comfortable lead going into the third period, it will play into our hands a little bit more.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
TAKING ON THE WORLD
After goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was announced as one of Czech Republic’s goaltenders for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey early yesterday morning, three more members of the Winnipeg Jets were named to rosters Wednesday evening.
Connor Hellebuyck, currently with the Jets’ AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, will play with Team North America, comprised of players 23-and-under from Canada and the United States.
Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien were selected by the United States, the final team to make their first 16 players known to the public.
“Any time you get the opportunity to represent the United States it’s a huge honour,” said Wheeler, who compared learning he’d be playing in the World Cup to being named to the 2014 Olympic team in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s on that level. The Olympics is obviously a pretty prestigious thing. To be able to say you’re an Olympian is pretty special. That carries a lot of weight. I’m equally excited about this opportunity.”
Coach Paul Maurice, who will serve as an assistant coach for Team Europe applauded the selections.
“Those two guys have been our drivers this year… Blake is very very consistent with his game,” said Maurice. “And Dustin, you look at it from a statistical point of view, with the goals that he’s probably going to end up scoring at the end, being a plus player, and now, with the injuries to Bryan (Little), playing against the other team’s best, not sliding through games easily, he’s been really solid.”
The tournament begins Sept. 17, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario.