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Special teams take centre stage Thursday

by Mitchell Clinton (@MClinton007) / Winnipeg Jets


WINNIPEG
-- It didn’t take all 50 minutes of the Winnipeg Jets practice to notice what the team was focusing on that day: special teams.

Whether the work was happening across the entire rink with one unit, or split up into the two zones, the power play and penalty kill units put in a lot of work, in an effort to improve the NHL’s 27th and 25th ranked PP and PK teams.

“It’s an area we need to improve on,” forward Bryan Little said of special teams. “Even more the penalty kill than the power play. We have to find a way to come up with big kills and get back to that aggressive style we were at last year.”

Last year the Jets ranked 13th in the NHL when it came to killing penalties. To get back to that, head coach Paul Maurice says the Jets are focusing on being better at a few things, rather than trying to be “good at everything.” In his words, trying to do too much can result in being caught in the middle.

“When it’s at its best, it’s very aggressive, the reads are right, and the saves are there,” said Maurice. “When it’s not, you’re half aggressive, you’re out of position, your reads then become unreadable. The game, you can’t figure out what’s happening, and the goaltender is seeing a completely different shot than he normally would on the PK. That is a matter sometimes of just two feet.”

Little, who played 1:21 on the PK in the 4-3 loss to St. Louis, says getting scored on can lead to being hesitant.

“If you get scored against, and your confidence isn’t as high, you’re going to be a little hesitant, no matter what. That’s where we get caught,” he said. “We’re trying to be aggressive, and we’re caught in between of when we should go and when we shouldn’t. We’re a better team when all four guys are pushing at once, when we’re all aggressive at the same time.”

Like Little, defenceman Tyler Myers saw time on the penalty kill as well as the power play against St. Louis. The 25-year-old feels the Jets are close in turning the corner.

“We’re not far away from being a really good special teams team. It’s a fine line between being good and not playing the way you want to on the PK and the PP,” he said. “It comes down to the mentality, I think. The urgency to get on pucks early on the PK. We worked on that today, and we expect to be better tomorrow.”

Tomorrow is the next chance to improve in special teams, when the Jets host the New York Rangers. Winnipeg will face a New York squad on the back half of a back-to-back, as the Rangers face off with the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday.

While there are still 51 games left on the Jets regular season schedule, Myers believes there is still plenty of time for the Jets to gain ground on teams ahead of them in the playoff race.

“I think it’s going to be urgent every game going forward. (We’re) really close to being in it,” he said. “There’s some things to improve on for sure. Definitely want to come in urgent tomorrow, but we need to have a lot of urgency going forward with all our games.”

“We want to go into the break on a high,” said Little. “Hopefully get a few wins in here. Tomorrow is a big one. We need to bounce back quick.”

CALLED UP

The Jets recalled Joel Armia and Matt Halischuk from the Manitoba Moose before practice this morning. Armia and Halischuk played in Manitoba’s 5-1 win over San Antonio at MTS Centre Wednesday night, a game the Jets coaching staff attended.

“It’s one of those things you try not to think about,” said Halischuk, when asked about the coaches being in attendance. “Obviously with both playing in the same city, you just have to get out of your mind, just go out and play each day, go to work each day. Just excited to get the opportunity to come back up here.”

Halischuk has played 250 career NHL games, and has six points in 24 games with the Moose so far this season. Armia, fresh off being recalled by the Jets Nov. 23, and re-assigned Dec. 12, has eight points in 18 games with the Jets’ AHL affiliate.

Adam Lowry, who was assigned to the Moose yesterday, had one assist in the team’s 5-1 win. Maurice said he liked what he saw in Lowry’s game.

“I’m a huge Adam Lowry fan and believer,” said Maurice. “He touched the puck a lot more often, just looked a lot more like we had hoped for. Not every career is a straight path. He got more touches on the puck, got his stick in the right spots, killed some penalties, and got into a heavier rotation. I liked what I saw in his game last night. He needs to build off that.”

-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com

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