As far as mid-season turnarounds go, this one is starting to look pretty good.
With their long-shot 3-2 win over first-place Anaheim Tuesday night, the Winnipeg Jets have strung together four in a row for only the second time this NHL campaign.
They have a shot at hitting a high-water mark of five when they visit San Jose Thursday night to play the Sharks, also formidable at home with a record in their own building of 17-2-3.
Not since November have the Jets managed to win four in a row in a season that has seen a five-game losing streak cost former coach Claude Noel his job.
But since Paul Maurice took over Jan. 12, they haven’t lost a game. They’ve even started talking with straight faces about making the playoffs once more, despite their current last-place position in the Central Division. Although, with Tuesday’s win, they at least now sit tied with Nashville.
If they were looking for another confidence booster, they certainly got it in Anaheim.
The Jets handed the Ducks their first regulation home loss this season and it made Maurice look more prophet than cockeyed optimist when he said earlier this week that, on a one-game basis, any team can beat any team in the NHL.
At 23-23-5, the Jets are still just barely back in .500 territory. To make the playoffs, something the franchise has managed only once in its entire history in Atlanta or Winnipeg, the current winning streak pretty well has to continue, or at least not see many long interruptions.
But there is at least a glimmer of hope for fans who just two weeks ago were raining boos down on the home team.
“We’ve done some good things in our game and we’ve played some stretches of real fine hockey,” Maurice said this week.
Some of the good things:
— Ondrej Pavelec’s save percentage has finally crept back above the .900 mark. His goaltending (40 saves) was a big reason the Ducks were stymied in their bid to extend their winning ways at home Tuesday.
— Centre Bryan Little is on fire with eight points in five games, after managing just three in his previous 10. Little has always been a strong playmaker for the Jets but they’ve come to rely on him even more this season as others have struggled. With 42 points and 31 games remaining, he’s well on track to break his NHL career-high 51 set in Atlanta in 2008-09.
— Right winger Blake Wheeler has also boosted his output with six points in his last five games, only two fewer than he managed in his previous 10.
— Rookies Mark Scheifele at centre and Jacob Trouba on defence have started to perform consistently at a high level. Scheifele continues to climb in the NHL’s rookie scoring race, sitting in fourth spot Wednesday with 28 points.
— Left winger Evander Kane returned from his latest injury Tuesday to score, short-handed, what proved to be the game winner. As he left town on the road swing, Kane said it was his turn to show Maurice what he could do.
— And Dustin Byfuglien has managed the Noel-inspired transition to forward well and still holds the point on power plays.
Maurice says the whole team feels comfortable seeing the puck on Byfuglien’s stick.
“There’s a component to every player that the coaches have nothing to do with,” he says.
“He really looks like he’s enjoying playing the game and that’s infectious. And when you get a guy with those gifts . . . I’m excited to have him. Running the bench with a guy like that on the bench is great.”
The Jets locker-room wasn’t all that happy a place prior to Noel’s departure. Although no one was blaming the coach, players were tired of explaining night after night why they couldn’t win, something they no longer have to dread.
“You build your confidence where you can,” says Maurice, who insists he felt the Jets were already a good team when he arrived.
The Jets last won five in a row in April 2013 but it was too late to get them into the playoffs during the last, lockout-abbreviated season.
“The whole team’s playing with confidence I think,” said Pavelec after Tuesday night’s win.
“We know we can beat everybody, that’s good, but there’s a lot of work in front of us so we have to keep going.”
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