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The team starts the new year atop the Western Conference and only two teams in the NHL – the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Maple Leafs – have more points.Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press

The Jets enter 2019 in a better place than ever before – and that is saying something. Winnipeg’s beloved hockey team engineered its first Stanley Cup run last season and whipped the streets downtown into a delirious white tornado.

Despite a ho-hum October and injuries to key players, the Jets appear poised to make another long charge through the playoffs. They start the new year atop the Western Conference standing and only two teams in the NHL – the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Maple Leafs – have more points.

There is no guarantee from one Auld Lang Syne to the next, but the Jets seem to be a more polished and mature ensemble than the one that was left to console itself over the summer. Only Marc-André Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights prevented them from reaching the Cup final.

Winnipeg completed the first 39 games with a hard-fought 4-3 victory in Edmonton over the Oilers on New Year’s Eve. Connor McDavid has 22 points in his past 11 games and Leon Draisaitl has 17, but the Oilers have lost six times in a row.

The Jets got a goal from captain Blake Wheeler, but won on a rare night when neither Mark Scheifele nor Patrik Laine found the score sheet. Brendan Lemieux, a fourth-liner, scored twice, including the winner. Brandon Tanev, who plays on the third line, scored the other. They are the second-youngest team in the NHL behind Columbus, but have such depth.

“We have a lot of big things to work one,” said Paul Maurice, the head coach. "Because we are so young, there is a lot to learn. But we are pleased that we have been able to win a bunch of games while we are in the process of developing young players.

“We have good leadership on the top end, and they can drive a lot of games.”

The Jets finished the calendar year with 54 wins and 114 points, both franchise bests. They are currently without Dustin Byfuglien, who is on injured reserve for the second time already this season, but have barely missed a step. They have not lost three consecutive games in regulation time since March.

They have gone from being great to elite, without much of the fuss that accompanies organizations to the East.

“They are a team that has been built over an extended period of time to go the distance,” Ken Hitchcock, the Edmonton coach, said on Monday. "You see that in their play, in all of the little things.

“I did not notice a lot of the top-end guys today but I noticed the middle to the back end of the lineup had an impact on the game.”

Of his own struggling Oilers, he said, “I thought the guys we go to every game played their hearts out. We need the bottom end of our team to start playing better to get to the next level. There are people that are trying to survive and it is not good enough. It has to change.”

The Jets have the fewest losses of any team in the league in regulation time over the past calendar year,and are sitting pretty. By comparison, Edmonton is on the verge falling out of contention again for the postseason. It would be the 13th time in the past 14 years.

Winnipeg already is the toughest home team for any opponents to beat in the NHL. On top of that, this season the Jets are 12-6 on the road.

“We feel we have come into a window now of having a strong team," Maurice said. We got halfway to the goal [last year]. That was part of the learning process a team needs to go through. As good as that was, it was only halfway. There is a lot of work that goes into being able to cross the other line. But it was a really strong step forward."

After the Jets were eliminated by Vegas in five games in the conference final, Maurice said it was difficult to feel positive.

“You start over at Ground Zero like everyone else," he said. "We have to go back and get stronger and be more mature in our game so we can prepare ourselves for this event again.”

The season is about at the midway point now, and the Jets look better than ever.

Wheeler and Scheifele are both among the top 10 scoring leaders. Laine leads the NHL with 11 power-play goals. Connor Hellebuyck has been steady, if not spectacular, in the net. There are always things to improve, always a bit of tinkering to be done here and there. But on Jan. 1, the Jets are the best team in the West. The intimidating Nashville Predators and P.K. Subban, the Golden Knights and Fleury and the surging Calgary Flames and Johnny Gaudreau are all behind them.

This is rarified air, a height not enjoyed by a team from the prairies for quite a while.

The Oilers got two two goals from Draisaitl and battled hard, but fell short. They are wracked with injuries, have already replaced their coach and the seat beneath general manager Peter Chiarelli grows ever hotter. It is not usual for people in Edmonton to be envious of their cousins in Winnipeg, but they are now.

The Jets flirted with supremacy for the first time last year. It has only made them hungrier.

“We aren’t satisfied,” Wheeler said. “We are definitely heading in the right direction. We have a lot to like, a lot to build on and a lot to be excited about heading into 2019.”

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