WINNIPEG – Sticking to the program is paying dividends for the Winnipeg Jets, who continue to follow Claude Noel’s game plan to make the playoffs.
The latest tangible symbol of their success was Tuesday night’s patient performance that allowed them to walk away with a 3-1 win over the Boston Bruins and again claim top spot in the Southeast Division.
Noel says the performance against the powerful Bruins is a perfect example of what he’s trying to preach.
“Boston does it great,” he said after an optional skate Wednesday as the Jets prepare for a two-game homestand against the Washington Capitals.
“They just do the same. They start the game, they play the game, they end the game, it’s the same . . . They just don’t veer off the program.”
The style may not be exciting but the winning is, and the Jets have come a long way in a year under Noel’s tutelage.
“We’ve changed our mindset in the last year,” forward Blake Wheeler said Wednesday.
He had two goals Tuesday night, bringing his total for the season to 14.
“I think everyone to a man is buying into the fact that if we play the game the right way then we can be a winning team.”
Exactly a year ago Wednesday, the Jets were floundering below the line that separates NHL playoff contenders from the also-rans.
Last year, James Neal recorded his second NHL hat trick and Sidney Crosby had four assists in his first home game in more than three months as Pittsburgh downed the Jets 8-4.
Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec was pulled in the second period after allowing five Penguins goals on 24 shots.
Flash forward and the team is celebrating their win over the heavyweight Bruins (but not too much), a game in which Pavelec was clearly the difference maker.
“Last year we went to Pittsburgh, Detroit, those teams, we got killed,” said Pavelec Wednesday.
This year, the Jets are far more solid on the road, no matter which team they play. After 17 games, they rank sixth in the NHL at 9-6-2.
They started the season struggling on the road, but even there they’ve started to see more regular success as they wait for chances and focus on a tighter, more responsible and physical defensive game.
They’re far from perfect and admit they have lapses. The second period Tuesday night was one, after Boston’s surprise goal seemed to stun the Jets and they had trouble even getting close enough to the Bruins’ net to get off a shot.
But Pavelec’s goaltending continues to be a rock on which the team can stand and regain their feet.
“He’s been our best player this past month,” said captain Andrew Ladd. “For us, he gives us a chance to win each and every night.”
At 27 games he also continues to be one of the NHL’s hardest working goaltenders, and Noel would like to give him a rest. But with backup Al Montoya still recovering from an injury as of Wednesday, he just isn’t sure when that will happen.
The Bruins outshot the Jets 28-25 Tuesday night but only Brad Marchand managed to get past Pavelec on a defensive miscue that put the puck on his stick right at the Winnipeg goal.
“If you’re winning you feel good,” Pavelec said as he faces a possible three games in four nights. “It’s a tough schedule, it’s tough to handle it but I’m ready to go. I feel really good.”
If they do make the playoffs this year, it will be for only the second time in the history of the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise. The first and only playoff appearance was in 2006-07, when the Thrashers were swept in four straight by the New York Rangers
After the Capitals, the Jets face another division rival Sunday when Tampa Bay comes to the MTS centre.
But Wheeler said who they face isn’t important.
“I just have a lot of confidence in the fact that if we play a certain way and have a certain mindset, then we’re going to have success against our opponent,” he said.