WINNIPEG – Defence and discipline are the foundation on which the Winnipeg Jets are trying to build a strong second season and, for the most part, it seems to be working.
Just five games in, they’re already off to a seven-point start and that’s more than twice their total last season at the same point, when they had to fight to get to .500 and missed the playoffs.
But no one is letting it go to their heads.
“I’m a little bit reluctant to put too much into the five games, it’s just a little bit early,” coach Claude Noel said Monday, before departing far a game Tuesday night in Montreal.
“I like what I see. We all like what we see in the fact that we’ve managed this thing and now we’re 3-1-1 (but) let’s keep this in perspective.”
There have been lapses. One of them was Sunday night, although it didn’t cost them in the end as the Jets emerged with a 5-4 overtime win at home against the New York Islanders.
Winnipeg leads the league in the fewest penalties so far with just 17 but they gave up four of those Sunday and one led to a power-play goal.
Their generally strong defensive play also suffered but they were able to bounce back, as they did Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, overcoming a two-goal first-period deficit to win 4-2 and with backup netminder Al Montoya in goal for the first time.
There is no question it feels better to be well above .500 than struggling to reach that mark, even this early in the season. But, like their coach, the players aren’t banking on anything just yet.
“Whenever you’re ahead of the game you’re able to build on what you’ve done and you’re not working to get back in the mix of the playoffs, so we’re in a good position right now,” said team captain Andrew Ladd.
“But, at the same time, it’s only five games in and doesn’t mean anything, so we’ve got to keep going and keep building on what we’ve done.”
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec in particular has benefited from the newfound focus, after times last season when it seemed he was left in a shooting gallery.
“Against Pittsburgh, in the third period, they had zero shots in the first 10 minutes,” he said in praise of his teammates.
Facing last season’s scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, a revitalized Sidney Crosby and the always dangerous James Neal, the Jets stuck to the game plan. Malkin and Neal were held pointless and the Jets took just one penalty.
“It was really good to see how the guys handled the best player on the ice probably right now. . . . We don’t give up a lot of scoring chances. . .
“That’s our plan and we have to stick with the plan.”
One other change from last season is their ability to win on the road. In fact, their first win this season came on the road.
In 2011-12, it wasn’t until Game 9 that they managed a road win and they ended the season with a woeful away record of 14-22-5.
They’ll be putting their road game to the test again in Montreal and Noel says the Canadiens (3-1-0) are clicking as well. They beat the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in overtime Sunday night.
“It’s not going to be an easy place to play. We all know what Montreal’s like so, you know, for us it’s a heck of a challenge . . . We just need to make sure we’re playing a good game.”