They used to be called the “dog days” of January – but no more.
In olden times – when there was far more disparity in team talent and team money, when victory meant two points to the winner and zero points to the loser – the NHL would be largely sorted out by midseason. If you were out of the playoffs, you were often too far out even to think about it. If you were in, there would still be some position juggling but hardly anything worth breaking a sweat over. Once the trading deadline passed the playoff-bound teams could get serious again and fine-tune themselves for the postseason.
In modern times – three-point games, no ties, parity the pride of the NHL – you go to sleep in January at your peril.
Heading into Monday’s games, nine points separated first place from eighth, the final playoff position in the Western Conference. There were but five points between sixth place and 10th. In the Eastern Conference, it was 10 points between first and eighth and only three points separating sixth place from ninth.
This parity has a stressful effect on virtually every team throughout the season, but is most profoundly felt in January, when middle-rung teams begin assessing their prospects for the remainder of the hockey year.
“All the changes happen in February,” said Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Wellwood, “so you want your team doing well.”
Wellwood’s Jets had not been of late. They had lost three in a row and were 1-5-0 in January when they arrived in the capital, earning but two points. The Senators, on the other hand, had gone 6-0-1 and gained 13 points. The two teams had virtually done a flip in the Eastern Conference standings, the Senators rising to fifth while the Jets had slipped down to 10th.
“We want to put a stop to it before we get out of the [playoff]picture,” said Jets forward Bryan Little.
“It only takes one game to get out of a funk.”
In this one game, they came out of it dramatically, defeating the Senators 2-0 on goals by Jim Slater and Tobias Enstrom. The Senators looked as listless as a team with a lock on the playoffs, which they do not have, while the Jets looked driven, despite the fact they were missing three key players in defenceman Zach Bogosian, leading scorer Blake Wheeler and all-star selection Dustin Byfuglien.
It was an unfortunate evening for Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, chosen No. 1 NHL star of the week earlier in the day. His teammates played as though he would also take care of the scoring, mounting but 11 shots at Winnipeg netminder Chris Mason over the first two periods and threatening only in the third, when they added 14 more for a total of 25.
Pavelec played well for the shutout, but the real story was his team’s determination to put an end to their skid.
One victory, of course, does not cancel a funk, and the Jets are acutely aware that they are entering a critical pass in their season and must perform well or else suffer the fate of so many previous incarnations as the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that made the playoffs only once in 11 seasons and even then went out in four straight losses.
January has too often been the month where all hope was lost for this franchise. Curious about this annual swoon, one of the Winnipeg reporters looked back over the 12 seasons of the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise and discovered the Thrashers-Jets were playing 28 games under .500 in the month – and everyone in hockey knows that playing .500 hockey is no longer good enough in the era of three-point games.
They need to play in 2012 as they played in 2011. “As I see them,” said Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel of the soaring Senators, “I see us in December.”
Only it is no longer December. It is halfway through January, with the critical decisions teams must make in February – trading deadline of Feb. 27 – coming fast.
A time when both teams, Senators and Jets, if they do anything at all, hope to be looking to this year rather than next.