Why the Jets are in the Playoff Hunt

First post of the 2012 on WinnipegWhiteOut.com so first let me wish you all the best in the new year and hope our Jets continue where they left off 2011.

21 games ago the Jets looked like they were playing for a lottery pick. While the season is not quite half way through, as we start a new calendar year, we take a moment to look back and see what changed and why the Jets are now holding down seventh place in the Eastern Conference.

1. Utilize the energy of the home crowd, get them going early and keep them in the game. Throw a few big hits on the first few shifts and don’t let the visitors score first.

The Jets have made the MTS Centre one of the toughest buildings to play in having won an Eastern Conference high 14 games in the Hangar and only one shy of the league high held by the team that sucks…Detroit. Considering that the Jets have only 5 road wins (only Columbus[4], Anaheim[3] and Carolina[4] have less) it is the home record and the energy they play with that has given this team the confidence they need to improve that road record in January.

2. Play energized hockey, there’s no long travel day excuses and as a young team there should be lots of energy. They need to go hard for 60+ minutes every night and be a tough team to play against.

The Jets have gelled as a team despite injuries and have finally bought into coach Noel’s system of playing hard, energized hockey which has made them a tough team to play against. The Jets have a lot of young talent but it’s not in the league of Philadelphia, Boston, etc. and yet they have managed to knock off both teams by playing high paced, aggressive hockey. The lone exception in December was the game in Detroit which was a nasty back to back travel day, so I think we can excuse them this one time.

3. Close out games, too many times already have the Jets had the lead going into the third period only to lose it, good teams close out games. They’ve proven to be a resilient team themselves and claw back into some games from behind so if they can use that attitude when they are ahead they should in theory have no issues.

The Jets are now 16-0-1 when leading going into the third period. While some of those wins have not been clean they have found a way to consistently finish and close out games and when they do give up a lead they have been able to answer back and take home the two points. Part of the reason they have been able to close out games has been the play of their goaltenders but it’s also because they stay on the attack not allowing their opponents to gain any momentum. That’s something that normally takes years to develop a killer instinct and not to sit back on leads—good on the Jets for getting to that stage this quickly. On the flip side they are now 1-8 when trailing after the first period, so a quick start is crucial for this team, but a good sign was that first win came last game against Toronto.

4. Play from the back out, the Jets defense was supposed to be the strength of this team and injuries as well as inconsistent play has caused it to be the Achilles heel instead. Big Buff has to play smart defence and only jump up when called upon. I think pairing him with Stuart helped and despite the pair being on for both goals against you need to give them some time to bond and Stuart is normally at least going to be back there to help if/when Buff gets caught.

The Jets back-end has improved. The play of call-ups Mark Flood and Artus Kulda helped simplify the defensive play but the biggest difference has been the stabilization of Byfuglien and the return of Ron Hainsey. Buff has started playing like the player we expected with a great balance of offence and becoming more responsible defensively. Hainsey has come back and leads the Jets defense with a plus 9. Zach Bogosian can thank his lucky stars for Charlie Huddy because he has steadily improved each game and has stepped up large the last two games with Buff out and the Bogocop even added a goal on the power play vs the Leafs.

5. Get the top line going, the Jets are not going to consistently win if Little/Ladd/Wheeler (or whoever is on that wing) aren’t producing. Kane/Burmistrov/Anthropov scoring is great but your top two lines have to be that. Secondary scoring from the likes of the GST line and Wellwood is already there, so once that line gets going, goal scoring shouldn’t be as hard of a struggle as it looks like right now.

Noel has found some chemistry not just with the top line but the top two lines of Ladd/Antropov/Wellwood and Kane/Little/Wheeler or whoever has filled in for the injured Little. These two lines carried the Jets through December as the bottom six forwards did little to contribute offensively, but were strong defensively. Wheeler has really come on strong being an assist machine while Kane and Little reaped the benefits. Little too was heating up before a foot injury has derailed him. Ladd struggled a bit while Antropov was out but with his return has started scoring again. The top six (excluding Burmistrov who has spent time on both top lines) have combined for 60 goals (137 points). The team has lit the lamp a total of 104 times. When you factor in that Burmistrov has 8 and the Defense combined for 18 goals it’s a safe bet to say the Jets top six/seven have been just that and have carried this team so far.

6. Understand losing won’t be tolerated, as much as this home stretch can help the team it can also destroy them. If the team that shows up is the one that got beaten by Florida in their last home game the fans will turn on them and all the positive energy that could be gained by the home crowd will cause even more pressure on a team struggling to find itself. For that I urge any fans that read this and will be attending a game to be supportive of your team, booing won’t make them better, silence will send a big enough message as Jets fans are easily top five loudest in the league so instead of booing just take a sip of your beer and be quiet. Lets not be a city like Toronto or Vancouver that boos our own players no matter how badly they may be playing.

The Jets only had back to back losses once over the last 21 games while comprising a record of 14-5-2 and have strung together a 4 game, a 3 game and are currently on another 3 game winning streak. They responded with a solid home win after a poor showing in Detroit and have not given the fans to have a reason to turn on them. This team has learnt what it feels like to win and what it means to the city. And in turn they also know what a long losing streak would mean as well.

7. Stay healthy, with all the injuries the Jets can ill afford to have any more players go down. Eric Fehr is close to making his Jets debut and many (myself included) hope he can be a catalyst to get this team scoring and playing with the talent they have and hopefully give them a solid 4 lines.

The revolving door to the infirmary has stayed open but thankfully the call-ups and the addition of Antti Miettinen has worked. While Fehr is still without a goal I feel it is only a matter of time before he finds his goal scoring abilities again. One thing we’ve learnt is this organization is deeper than we first expected and that’s a great sign for the future.

Up next for Winnipeg is a stretch that will see them play 14 of their next 19 on the road before closing out the season with 14 of 19 back at home. Then a 4 game road trip before the last game at the Hangar. Improving their road record is key to them holding down a playoff spot and as much as the past 21 games gave us a glimpse of what the team can be, the next 19 will tell us exactly who they are this year. Playoff contenders or home ice heroes.

On a side note the Jets are 14-6-1 at home and I bet a Leafs fan that the Jets would win 30 at home this year. They are on pace for 27 but I think it can be done. Good job boys now lets win some on the road.

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Jeff Stevenson is a co-founder of winnipegwhiteout.com and co-host of the popular Jets Hockey Podcast. He grew up in Winnipeg, MB and became very passionate about sports, hockey and the Jets. Now Jeff is proud and honored to help bring news and information about the Winnipeg Jets to fans around the world.

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