WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets will get back at it on Boxing Day, which is fitting because they’re going to be in battle mode the rest of the season.
The Jets (16-14-5) will end their 60-hour Christmas vacation on Monday morning with a practice at MTS Centre, and then they will jet off to Denver later in the day. They will battle the Colorado Avalanche (18-17-1) on Tuesday night at Pepsi Center.
Winnipeg is coming off a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night, which was a thud of an ending to the team’s pre-Christmas schedule. They Jets have now gone eight games alternating wins and losses (although one setback was in a shootout), and the schedule doesn’t get much easier or lighter.
After they get back from their quick vacation in Colorado, the Jets will play on Thursday and Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively. Then it’s a January full of road games.
The good news for the Jets and their throng of passionate supporters is the team has improved greatly since the start of the season. Now it needs to find a way to take it up another notch.
How does it do it? Well, it won’t be easy.
The top two lines are producing enough offence to win games, and the goaltending of Ondrej Pavelec has been stellar.
It’s a lack of production from the bottom six, so-so special teams and stretches of poor defensive play in their own end that needs to improve.
“The game takes it to another level now,” head coach Claude Noel said. “This is what you’ll see in the National Hockey League. There’s a couple other levels to be reached, and if you can’t keep up you’re going to be left behind. That’s where we’re really going to get tested. So we’re going to have to start pushing each other and these games are going to get heated up.
“You see the teams that are mentally strong and have depth and everything else. It gets pushed. It gets pushed to a hard level, and it gets worse.”
The Jets are on the outside looking in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff picture. All that guarantees is stress for the rest of the season. Noel already knows how every other team he’s battling with for playoff position did when he walks in for his post-game press conferences, so that fun has already begun.
There is one way to not have to worry about the out-of-town scoreboard as much, but it’s something the Jets have failed to do so far during their inaugural season in Winnipeg.
“You’ve gotta string some games together, and you’ve gotta get in a groove and continue to get points,” Noel said. “You have to continue to get points. And it’s an ongoing thing. There’s no easy way around getting above that line. And when you get above the line, you gotta try to stay there. That’s no picnic, either.
“Right now we’re over .500. We’ll take that. We’ve had a good home stand. We wanted to get home and make some hay. We’ve done that. So I’d sooner look at that than look at the other things.”
That’s a good idea, coach, because the next three and a half months will be spent trying to improve those “other things.”
It starts bright and early on Boxing Day.