MONTREAL - Considering how they’ve played lately, it’s easy to forget the Winnipeg Jets were involved in a 9-8 game earlier this season and were 27th in the NHL in goals against just a month ago.
“It’s hard to believe that was the same team,” is how defenceman Mark Stuart put it. “We’ve tightened up a lot since then and when we win 2-1, 1-0 games, I’m happy. I’ll take that any day.”
The veteran blue-liner has been smiling a lot in recent weeks. His team has improved to 16th in the NHL in goals against thanks to a month of December in which the Jets went 10-3-1 and allowed more than two goals in a game just twice.
As they embark on a key road trip, which starts Wednesday night in Montreal, the Jets are riding a three-game winning streak and have allowed just seven goals in the last five games, four of them in the only loss, against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The team defensive play is a source of pride and it’s the primary reason why the Jets are challenging for a playoff spot as the season nears the midway point.
“I’m really happy with the way we’ve defended, from our goaltender on out,” coach Claude Noel said. “Our team is becoming a really good checking team against heavy opponents.”
While starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has been the Jets’ best player (and backup Chris Mason has been just as good) his season is a reflection of the team’s defensive evolution.
When the Jets were scrambling, turning pucks over and sacrificing defence for offensive opportunities, Pavelec had terrible numbers, largely through no fault of his own. Today, he’s one of the hottest goalies in the NHL and he’s improved his goals against average to 2.82, his save percentage to .911.
Pavelec has been better and the defensive six stalwart, despite dealing with continuous injuries, but the biggest difference is in the attention to detail being paid by the forwards.
Noel has worked all year on implementing a strong defensive system and lately everyone has been buying in. The system is designed to bring wingers more into the defensive zone, which allows the Jets to outman the opposition 5-on-3 down low.
“We’ve done a good job taking everyone’s time and space away early,” defenceman Ron Hainsey said. “You can only do that if the forwards are really coming back hard and the D can stay up and try to cut teams off.”
Another area where the Jets have improved dramatically is penalty killing, partially because they are doing a better job while a man down and partially because they are not shorthanded anywhere near as often as they were early in the season.
“That’s less time in your zone,” Hainsey said. “We’ve spent less time on our half of the ice just by forechecking better and being smarter with the puck when we are going forward.”
This is a huge month for the Jets, who play nine of 13 games on the road and 12 of 13 games against Eastern Conference opponents. They enter the month in playoff contention in the East with a record of 19-14-5 and will need to display their newfound defensive prowess on the road with regularity if they want to stay there.
“In those close games, we’ve been able to play tight defence and really shut teams down,” Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. “At the start of the year we were losing those one-goal games and here in the past month we’ve found a way to come out on top.”
Noel suggested the team’s commitment to defence is the reason why it has been able to withstand injuries this season. They played the last three games without top centre Bryan Little and impact defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, but won all three.
“That tells us that we can defend,” Noel said. “That’s why we believe the foundation to winning goes around defending. If you check well enough, which we’ve been doing, you can find ways to win games.”