All season long the Winnipeg Jets have been running silent, running deep throughout the NHL; occasionally surfacing to upset one powerful team or another; never leading the Southeast Division but always hovering on the periphery of the division and the conference playoff stake. That is until now.
Although barely playing .500 hockey, the Jets are tied with the Florida Panthers in the Southeast Division with less than two months to go in the regular season.
The return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg was long overdue and the renewal of the arctic covenant between the Winnipeg fans and their beloved Jets is one of the great untold stories in the NHL today. Whereas the former Atlanta Thrashers could not draw flies in the Phillips Arena now the Winnipeg Jets are THE TEAM in the largest city in Manitoba.
Are the Winnipeg Jets worthy of the playoff berth?
The odds are dicey. The Jets have been plagued with inconsistency all season long. They started off slowly; rallied in December to get above .500; slumped again in January but have rallied again to place themselves in playoff competition. The one thing Winnipeg has not done is go on a powerful, consistent winning streak. If they were to do so then their playoff chances would improve immeasurably. But if they continue their inconsistent play then their immediate future looks murky and doubtful.
Still the Jets are intriguing because they have been spoilers for other contending teams. They have made the lives of the Philadelphia Flyers miserable: winning three of their four match-ups against the Broad Street Bullies. They beat the Boston Bruins on February 17 and their division rival Washington Caps on February 9.
What’s puzzling is how do they win?
There is nothing exceptional in Winnipeg’s tactical make-up. They rank 18th and 20th in offense and defense respectively. Their special teams are below average. But the one quality the Winnipeg Jets lack the most as a team is luck. Eight of the team’s 26 losses (not counting shoot-out or overtime losses) have been by one goal. If only four of those losses had gone Winnipeg’s way then the Jets would have a strong lead in the Southeast Division standings right now instead of engaging in a three-way dance with Florida and Washington.
But when you look at the Jets, you’re impressed by their youthful persistence on the ice and the calmness with which they are playing hockey.
The Jets entered this season with low expectations (a legacy from their Atlanta Thrasher years). Low expectations equal low pressure; combine that with the unconditional love the Winnipeg fans have given their team and what you get is a team that is emotionally free; uncluttered with competitive tightness. That type of freedom allows the Jets to play loose, experiment, and take chances that a contending team might not be willing to make. It allows the Jets to give their young players a fighting chance to win a job and show Jets head coach Claude Noel and Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff what they’re made of. In return what hockey fans are seeing is pure crowd-pleasing hockey. Whether Winnipeg’s brand of hockey will result in a playoff spot remains to be seen.
This coming September will mark the 40th anniversary of when Major League hockey came to Winnipeg. During the 1970s the old Winnipeg Jets were the flagship franchise of the World Hockey Association; possessing one of the greatest scoring machines in hockey history. The merger with the NHL robbed Winnipeg of its strength and they never fully recovered.
If the Winnipeg Jets of today are to become (and remain) playoff contenders in the near future then they need to regain the firepower and the consistency that their on-ice ancestors possessed so long ago.
Sometimes it takes a franchise shift to reinvigorate a team that always played in the doldrums. The Winnipeg Jets are a young team with a few bright talents. But they need more talents; more offense and defense; and the inner will to maintain a consistent edge if they are to be a team of the future.
And yet for now we can still enjoy the spectacle of a young team playing above itself: that’s the stuff that great hockey is made of.