Since being hired as coach of the Winnipeg Jets in January, Paul Maurice has been focused on implementing a defensive structure within the team that would reduce the number of games that they were chasing in the third period.
Maurice's objective was built from his years coaching the Carolina Hurricanes and facing the Atlanta Thrashers in the old Southeast Division.
"I probably, for whatever reason, watched the Atlanta Thrashers and then the Winnipeg Jets as much or more than as any other team in the National Hockey League because they kept adding these good young players in Atlanta," Maurice said during a phone conversation Wednesday. "We went a long stretch where we beat them every game, but for 10 or 15 minutes in the game we couldn't get close to them. They were snapping it around. But because they were chasing a lot of games they were working hard and giving up a ton of chances, but getting a ton of chances. At the end of the day that's not a good recipe. We wanted to make sure we implemented a foundation of a game, like what do we do when we don't have the puck. We're still early on in this process."
The Jets are buying in.
Backed by surprisingly good goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, Winnipeg is fourth in goals-against per game (2.21), sixth in shots-against per game (27.8) and ninth in penalty killing (83.9 percent). The Jets allowed 2.82 goals-per game last season.
Not coincidentally, the Jets have inserted themselves into the Stanley Cup Playoff race in the Western Conference even though they're still waiting for their offense to come around on a consistent basis.
They are 26th in goals-for per game (2.31).
"What I think is big is we've had a couple of nights where we didn't play our best and we still won," Maurice said. "When those games were starting to wobble on us we did a really good job of getting back to what we do. There is some confidence. The hardest thing is there is no more to this. There is no magic here. We don't need to do more to be a better team, we just need to compete as hard as we've been competing, and the guys know that."
Maurice noted the goaltending, and no one could have predicted before the season that on Dec. 10 Pavelec having a 2.30 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 22 appearances. He has never had a save percentage that high or GAA that low in any full season of his NHL career.
It similarly would have taken a lot of guts to predict that Hutchinson would have a .941 save percentage and 1.67 GAA over 10 appearances in the first two months of his rookie season.
But it's more than just goaltending that is carrying the Jets. They have had a high buy-in level to playing good defense from their high-end offensive players, Maurice said. He particularly praised Evander Kane for trying to be more than just a goal scorer.
"I think they were just tired of losing," he said. "I think the whole group, Evander Kane included, all of them, were just like, 'Enough.' Part of that is because they were working so hard. They really were. The games were up and down the ice, they were finishing their checks, but the results were just frustrating them to no end. Now they're enjoying it a little bit more."
It is, of course, easier for any new coach to get his message through when his players are tired of losing. Maurice has admittedly benefitted from that.
"That's also the real positive part about the pressure of a Canadian market," he said. "That pressure is brought to bear in Canada when your team is not winning. You feel it."
Maurice said the key has been the players holding each other accountable to adhering to the principles the coaching staff has put in to make the Jets a better defensive team.
The object was to stop players from cheating in the defensive end to create more offense. Now, Maurice said, when players do cheat they get called out by their teammates.
"The big bulk of the change here has nothing to do with me," Maurice said. "We've put in some simple things that we've asked them to do, but there's something going on in that room and it's really positive. It's not just winning. There's something more going on with this group. They really seem to like each other."