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Central Division notebook

Jets coach Paul Maurice believes Winnipeg is much better than average

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

By every statistical measure, the Winnipeg Jets look inconsistent, improving but average at best through 44 games. If you believe solely in numbers, that's going to be your opinion of the Jets too. They did nothing to dispel that notion Wednesday, when they lost 7-4 at home to the Montreal Canadiens.

Coach Paul Maurice, however, sees it differently. Though honest about the numbers that don't lie, and angered by the loss Wednesday, Maurice sees what the Jets have been through and chooses to accentuate the players' growth, development and ability to survive what was for the first two months the most grueling schedule in the NHL.

The Jets set an NHL record by playing 32 games in the first 60 days of the season, including six sets of back-to-backs. They were 13-16-3, including 5-10-1 on the road.

"I've never ever seen a schedule like that," Maurice said Tuesday. "That's where some of the inconsistency comes in."

Compounding the schedule were long-term injuries to forwards Shawn Matthias (25 games missed), Joel Armia (24), Bryan Little (23) and Drew Stafford (15 games), and defenseman Tyler Myers (missed 21 of first 32 games; out again), plus shorter-term injuries to forwards Mathieu Perreault (13), Nic Petan (10) and Mark Scheifele (three).

Video: MTL@WPG: Perreault roofs Wheeler's feed from in front

But Maurice said he could tell there was optimism somewhere among the inconsistency.

"We started to feel partway through that grueling stretch, 'Hey, when we get healthy and we get a little rest, we're a better team than we thought we were at the start of the season, when you came to training camp and you had no idea how any of these guys were going to perform,'" Maurice said. "That's kind of where we are. We're still working to how good we can be."

The Jets are showing signs of getting there. After the loss to Montreal, Winnipeg has won seven of 12 games since the 32-in-60 stretch. Six of those 12 games were on the road, where it went 4-2-0.

The Jets did lose leading goal-scorer Patrik Laine (21) to a concussion against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, but the positives, Maurice said, are slowly, if inconsistently, beginning to outweigh the negatives.

A lot of that goes back to how the Jets were able to survive those first 60 days, which had 143 man-games lost to injury and 15 more that defenseman Jacob Trouba missed because he didn't have a contract.

Video: MTL@WPG: Scheifele finishes give-and-go with Stafford

"We've looked inconsistent, but we're not as inconsistent as we've looked," Maurice said. "When you look at the minutes that our young players are playing, that's where my optimism comes from. In a 40-gamme stretch, Patrik Laine has really improved his game; Josh Morrissey is playing front-line minutes with Dustin Byfuglien; and Mark Scheifele, who is still 23, is a key guy, a driver now. I know what we've been through, and I'm not sure what that means in the near term, the next month, while some guys are still out, but this is very soon going to be a very good team."

Maurice said a lot of that hinges on the continued development of 23-year-old goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who was 16-13-1 with a 2.73 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 33 games.

Hellebuyck allowed three goals on seven shots in the first 14:01 against Montreal before getting pulled, but prior to that he was 10-5-1 with a 2.32 GAA, .924 save percentage and three shutouts at MTS Centre.

"I think we can be a [Stanley Cup Playoff] team," Maurice said. "I think to say we should be might be a bit of a stretch, but if we keep developing the way we are … there is forward motion. There is a price for development. You keep putting guys back out there. When you're banged up, you're not as deep. You have a young goaltender learning how to survive it. There's a payoff for that too. When you get through that, you've got young players that have played in critical situations that now feel like they're a driver instead of just being a piece. That's important stuff.

"I know what's happened to us in the first half -- our results are average and we're going through the growing pains that a lot of other young teams are -- but I don't feel we're that far off from being a real good team."

Irwin earning keep in Nashville

Considering where Nashville Predators defenseman Matt Irwin was last season, you can imagine the feeling he has today, knowing he's playing a regular shift in the NHL and by all accounts should be doing the same thing next season.

Irwin, 29, signed a one-year contract worth $650,000 with the Predators for next season on Friday. He is playing on a one-year, two-way contract this season after spending almost all of last season with Providence of the American Hockey League.

Irwin, who played 153 games in three seasons with the San Jose Sharks, was demoted to Providence last season after playing the first two games of the season with the Boston Bruins. He played well in the AHL, with 30 points (five goals, 25 assists) in 64 games and kept hoping and waiting for the call-up that never came.

"Things didn't go according to plan," Irwin said.

Irwin has played in 35 consecutive games since being recalled from Milwaukee of the AHL on Oct. 24. His time ice time is climbing, up over 20 minutes per game in 10 of the past 12. He's averaging 16:55 per game and has eight points (three goals, five assists).

And he knows where he'll be next season.

"Opportunity is a lot of it and what you do with that opportunity," Irwin said. "I wasn't overly thrilled with the way I played in camp, so I went down to Milwaukee and just waited for my chance. It came unfortunately because of injury, but it wasn't my first call-up and I knew I could play in the League. It was a matter of executing the game plan, trusting my skill and instincts, and just playing to my strengths."

Irwin said he wasn't thinking about next season, but the Predators were. When everyone is healthy, Irwin plays regularly on the third pair with Yannick Weber and has proven he also can play up in the lineup.

"There's always doubts, right?" Irwin said. "Going into the offseason, I was just trying to set myself up to get back on the radar. Nashville approached us and gave me an opportunity to sign another NHL contract, a two-way, and try to re-establish myself. I worked hard in the summer and I had a lot of people around me who supported me and believed in me. I couldn't be more thankful for them. It was all about just playing good hockey, and when the opportunity came, be ready and seize that moment."

Stat pack

The Chicago Blackhawks are shooting 24.1 percent in overtime (7-for-29), where they are 7-4. They have outscored the opposition 49-33 after the second period; that plus-16 goal differential is the best in the Central Division. … The Dallas Stars have a minus-16 goal differential after the second period (56-40), worst in the division. The Colorado Avalanche are minus-17 in the third period (42-25) but plus-5 in overtime (5-0). … The St. Louis Blues are third in the Western Conference in shots against per game (27.9) and second in penalty killing (84.8 percent), yet they're 11th in goals against per game (2.98). Why? St. Louis has a .911 save percentage at 5-on-5. Only the Avalanche (.909) are worse in the Western Conference. … The Blackhawks have a .941 save percentage at 5-on-5, a big reason they are allowing 2.41 goals per game despite giving up 31.2 shots per game and a penalty kill that is at 76.3 percent.

Video: DET@CHI: Keith blasts game-winner on power play in OT

Games to watch

Montreal Canadiens at Minnesota Wild (Jan. 12, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SNE, RDS, NHL.TV) -- A potential matchup of two of the best goalies in the NHL: Carey Price of Montreal and Devan Dubnyk of Minnesota. Dubnyk defeated Price 4-2 at Bell Centre on Dec. 22. Dubnyk made 32 saves; Price made 23.

St. Louis Blues at Los Angeles Kings (Jan. 12, 10:30 p.m. ET; SN, SN360, FS-MW, FS-W, NHL.TV) -- The start of a three-game California road trip for the Blues, who are 5-10-1 on the road and 6-8-1 since Dec. 8.

Chicago Blackhawks at Washington Capitals (Jan. 13, 7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CSN-DC, CSN-CH, NHL.TV) -- A test for the Blackhawks, who have won four straight games, including two in overtime.

Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks (Jan. 15, 7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV) -- It's the 46th game of the season for the Blackhawks and 42nd for the Wild, but it's the first time they've played each other. They will play each other three more times.

Winnipeg Jets at San Jose Sharks (Jan. 16, 4 p.m. ET; CSN-CA, TSN3) -- It'll be the third game in a four-day stretch, all on the road, for the Jets, who play at the Arizona Coyotes and Kings. If Winnipeg wants to become a consistent team, it can't stumble on this trip.

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