WINNIPEG – Ondrej Pavelec doesn’t want to talk about his goaltending any more, at least not on game days.
It’s a late-season coping mechanism the 26-year-old Czech is using to deal with a lot of negative reaction to his part in the Winnipeg Jets’ third consecutive season struggling to squeak into the NHL playoffs.
“I just try to change it a little bit and actually it worked,” he said after Winnipeg’s 2-1 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday night, suggesting he would be sticking with the no-talking plan.
The win kept elimination from the playoff race at bay at least for a few days as the Jets flew back to Winnipeg on Wednesday with five out of a possible 10 points from their road trip.
But, barring a miracle collapse by the teams ahead of them, this season seems destined to end the same as the prior two when the Jets play their last regular-season game April 11 in Calgary—on the outside looking in.
Even with the win Tuesday, Winnipeg (34-33-10) sits seven points back of Phoenix (36-27-13), which is now tied on points but sits behind Dallas in the fight for the eighth and final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
Dallas has two games in hand and Phoenix one over the Jets, who have just five left to play this season.
Goaltending is only one of the problems the team faces in its third season in Winnipeg, but it’s a big one and not new. Pavelec has let in the second most goals in the NHL this season at 157, behind only Phoenix’s Mike Smith at 159.
His goals against average is 3.01, 68th in the league, and his save percentage of .902 ranks him 62nd. In his defence, he has also faced the 12th most shots in the league and, since he also ranks 12th in number of games played this season, one could argue he’s the top target in the NHL.
But over the last three seasons combined, he also leads the league in losses at 73—his record as of Wednesday was 21-25-7 through 55 games this season—and goals allowed at 469.
New coach Paul Maurice, like Claude Noel before him, has been loath to lay a lot of blame in front of the Winnipeg net when explaining why the Jets cannot clear that playoff line.
“They were as good as we were, the rest of the hockey club,” he said of netminders Pavelec and backup Al Montoya, after a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on their current road trip.
“This is not (at) Pavelec’s or Montoya’s feet. They weren’t any worse than anybody else out there.”
He had much the same to say about Pavelec’s role in the team’s collapse in Anaheim Monday night, when the Jets surrendered a four-goal lead to lose 5-4 in overtime.
“He was good last night. He might have been great last night in some of the saves that he made but he doesn’t get the win.”
Pavelec also has the support of his teammates, who admit they don’t do enough sometimes to give him the help he needs.
But goaltending can’t be talked away as one of the problems for the Jets as they try to do things like get their goal differential into positive territory, something a playoff-bound team needs to address.
They have brought that differential down in three seasons. It started at -21 in 2011-12, fell to -16 last season and is running -12 this season. But it isn’t where anyone wants to see it yet.
On the scoring side, over the past three seasons the Jets have been middle of the pack and relatively consistent in their goals per game (2.69, 2.62, 2.70) although this season has seen some strong individual performances.
Right winger Blake Wheeler has scored a career-high 27 goals and has already tied his career-high 64 points set in 2011-12. Centre Bryan Little has 22 and a new record of 62 points and, after his move to forward from defence, Dustin Byfuglien has tied his record of 20 goals set in 2010-11 and set a new personal best of 55 points.
Andrew Ladd is the fourth Jet to top 50 points this season and score 20 goals or more.
Rookies Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba have lived up to their billing. Only injuries kept the pair from challenging harder for top numbers among this year’s rookie class. Trouba still sits fourth among defencemen and Scheifele seventh among forwards in terms of points.
The degree to which the Jets have leaned on Trouba in particular can be seen by his ice time, tops among all rookies at 22:33 per game right now.
Overall the Jets still struggle with consistency, and not just from night to night. Their collapse in Anaheim on Monday night after dominating for a period and a half left veterans on the team speechless.
Injuries have been a factor and some players haven’t lived up to their potential this season. Star left-winger Evander Kane, dealing with an ever-changing series of linemates as well as his own injury issues, has just 17 goals and 38 points in 59 games.
He had 17 goals and 33 points in just 48 games in the previous lockout-shortened season and a career-high 30 goals and 57 points in 2011-12.
Montoya, meanwhile, has worked a lot more than he did last season, his first in Winnipeg when he saw action just seven times.
His numbers are better than Pavelec’s (over half as many games) but no one is saying he’s the answer to the team’s prayers between the pipes. His record of 13-8-3 and save percentage of .920 through 28 games includes three shutouts, however, and Winnipeg fans have been giving him lots of love when he starts.
After stints with Phoenix and the Islanders, the 29-year-old Chicago native has yet to shuck the backup tag, although he was drafted sixth overall in 2004. He has avoided saying anything this season that even suggests he wants to usurp Pavelec’s position with the Jets.
“I feel like I can play games and I feel like I can win games, other than that I’m not really focused on anything else,” he said recently.