Jets back to work, ready for sprint to finish?

- February 26th, 2014

The Olympics are over and the frenetic pace of the stretch drive is about to pick up for the Winnipeg Jets.

After eight days of practice, a stretch of 22 games over 44 days begins on Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Jets are in the thick of the wild-card race in the Western Conference with what appears to be a handful of teams and that pack includes the Coyotes, a club that served as the opposition for the debut of Maurice back on Jan. 13 — a one-sided 5-1 Jets’ win at MTS Centre.

Canadian Olympian goalie Mike Smith didn’t look like himself on that night and the Jets played with emotion as they snapped a five-game losing skid in impressive fashion.

It will be interesting to see how both teams have grown in that seven-week span that included more than a week of an Olympic break for the bulk of the players on both rosters.

As Maurice said earlier this week (and barring some changes at Thursday’s morning skate), it looks like Evander Kane is going to be the only player to return from an extended stay in sick bay.

I understand why Maurice is rewarding his players for a job well done going into the Olympic break, but he has yet to find any real traction, so I’m confused as to why he’s not inserting Jim Slater, who was limited to eight games before undergoing sports hernia surgery.

The Jets could use Slater’s veteran presence, work in the face-off circle and smarts in the defensive zone, so I’ll be shocked if he’s not in the lineup on Saturday against the Nashville Predators.

Matt Halischuk has been out since Dec. 14 and I think the Jets should quickly find a spot for him on the fourth line as well, since he was playing well when he went down with the injury.

I also realize the Jets would be forced to subject a player (most likely a forward) to waivers if they ultimately decide to activate Slater and Halischuk and the two prime candidates would be James Wright (a pending RFA) and Eric Tangradi (who has one more year on his one-way deal).

That will be worth monitoring in the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline, which strikes at 2 p.m. CT on Mar. 5.

Given their place in the standings, I don’t see the Jets moving all of their pending unrestricted free agents but there’s certainly a chance they’ll be a bit more active than they’ve been in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Olli Jokinen told reporters today he’d like to stick around with the Jets past this season and Mark Stuart has expressed his interest in staying with the organization as well.

As I wrote Tuesday, those are the two players who will likely garner the most interest.

Devin Setoguchi is a guy that will be interesting to watch as well. His production is down but since he’s been known to get on hot streaks, he could have some appeal to a team looking for an offensive infusion. Might there be a fit with a team like the Los Angeles Kings? There are sure to be others who inquire as well.

The over-riding feeling after today’s session was that both the players and head coach are eager to get back to playing games after enduring seven skates (one was outdoor) during the eight days since the Olympic break ended.

Players are tired of doing battle drills against one another. Bring on an actual opponent.

“For us, with Paul coming in and the (13) games we’ve played under him, we have a new identity and that’s something we want to continue,” said Kane, who missed the past six games with an infection in his right hand. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back and that’s only going to help our team be better than we were going into the break. The most exciting part is that we’re in a position to make the playoffs. We’re right there. The four teams that are battling for that spot basically have the same number of games and it’s going to be a fight to the end.”

As for the schedule, the Jets have a home-heavy schedule on tap, with nine of their next 12 games at MTS Centre, a fact not lost on Maurice — who mentioned the importance of keeping up the home-ice advantage that has been restored of late (the Jets are 4-1 on home ice since he took over).

There will be plenty of head-to-head games during the stretch drive as well, which could be good or bad for the Jets, depending on the results.

“It’s a bonus for us and a bonus for them,” said Kane. “It’s a chance for us to make ground and push other teams down and other teams are going to have that same mentality when they play us.

“It’s going to be about our will and our battle and making plays and playing to win, more importantly.”

My notebook in Thursday’s paper and online at www.winnipegsun.com deals with the subject of the stretch drive, while my main column deals with goaltending.

Maurice didn’t make a public declaration, but look for Ondrej Pavelec to get the start on Thursday.

Pavelec is excited about the opportunity to be involved in another playoff push.

“It’s an important stretch for us and there’s a lot of teams in the mix that are looking for a playoff spot. It’s going to be fun. It’s a fun part of the year,” said Pavelec, who has yet to get a taste of NHL playoff action during his career. “Now is the most important time of the year and it’s going to go fast. A lot of games in not too many days. It’s going to be hard but it’s going to be fun.

“We just have to find a way to win. The last few years we were just that small step outside the playoffs. Every game matters right now and it’s going to be about the little details.”

Pavelec gave an interesting and honest answer when I asked if his Olympic experience with the Czech Republic might help him during the stretch run.

“We’ll see. A lot of people ask me this question but I don’t know. It could help me,” said Pavelec. “It’s good that I was playing, I didn’t take many days off. But maybe other players will have more energy. I don’t know. It’s a hard question and I’m going to have that answer after the season.”

Pavelec said his body clock is back on Central time and he’s refreshed and ready to go.

Maurice pledged his full support toward both goalies when I raised the subject today.

Is he planning to ride one guy during the stretch drive?

Maurice left the door open to however things play out.

“You’d hope to. You hope that you would, that means you’ve got a guy rolling. Whichever way it goes. Whoever is standing between the pipes is the No. 1 goaltender. But any team that plans to have success down the stretch and in the playoffs, is going to have one guy get really hot,” said Maurice. “I’ve done both, rode a guy real hard and used two goalies in the playoffs. I wouldn’t say it’s game-by-game, but certainly, whenever you get a sense of a direction a guy is going, you make a decision based on that direction. If a guy gets hot, you’re going to ride him. If a guy falters and …it’s not happening for him, then you won’t wait too long to make a change.”

The goaltending position will be under the microscope during the stretch drive and it will be interesting to see how things play out.

“We want our goaltenders to play well enough that we give them the chance to be the difference,” said Maurice. “Not by them standing on their head.”

Columnist Paul Friesen weighs in with a column on Jokinen, plus a sidebar on the veteran centre’s desire to remain with the Jets beyond this season.

Paul and I will be providing double coverage of the Jets and Coyotes from the morning skate and the initial plan is that he’s doing the pre-game web story and I’ll focus on the afternoon blog to tee up the tilt.

Categories: Hockey

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