The Winnipeg Jets are suffering through a post-all-star-game funk, an entirely predictable development on some levels. Before the NHL took a break to celebrate the glorious hockey history of Columbus, Ohio, the Jets were on fire – a 5-1-1 run during the hardest stretch in their schedule all season – at a time when several players were returning to the regular lineup from the injury list. Everything went their way, and when that happens, you want to keep playing. You don't want to sit for six days and let the momentum stall, the way it can in a long season full of ebbs and flows.
The Jets' closest competitors in the NHL's Western Conference playoff race, the Calgary Flames, went through a similar period earlier in the season; they lost eight games in a row just when, paradoxically, their own injury-riddled lineup got healthy again.
This happens – players returning from long absences need time to find their form and their roles. When that finally occurs, things can get back on track, as it did with Calgary, currently winner of seven of its past nine games. Calgary, Winnipeg and the Jets' opponent Tuesday night, the Vancouver Canucks, were all unexpectedly holding down playoff spots when the calendar clicked over to February.
For Winnipeg, losers of four in a row now, the challenge is to get back to playing the stifling brand of defensive hockey that characterized their surge up the standings, fuelled in part by the play of rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson, a Calder Trophy candidate.
Signed as a free agent by Winnipeg in 2013 after he was released by the Boston Bruins, Hutchinson played three games for the Jets at the end of last year and was excellent for their AHL affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps, down the stretch and in the playoffs.
In October, as NHL training camps wrapped up, the Jets traded for Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj, but instead of using him as a backup to starter Ondrej Pavelec, they stuck with the plan of giving Hutchinson a chance at the NHL level, and sent Budaj to St. John's. And even if Hutchinson's numbers have tailed off of late, he still ranks eighth in the NHL in save percentage and seventh in goals-against average, after being No. 1 in both categories at one point in January.
"Goalies are all different kinds," Jets coach Paul Maurice explained. "Some guys come out and just stand between the pipes in practice, but are lights out in games. This guy works: He works in practice and he works at his craft, he's at the rink a lot, he's doing his stretching, all the extra things. Being a great pro is a high priority for him. And the players love playing for him, because he really battles in the net. He's a competitive kid.
"Other than that, the only interaction I have with my goalies is I talk to them once or twice a year to make sure they're feeling okay about their game. I have no idea why they do what they do or how they do it. Just as long as they keep showing up and playing well, we're good."
Jets defenceman Ben Chiarot played in the minors with Hutchinson last year, and calls him "one of the most focused, disciplined players I've ever seen. That's what makes him so good. His confidence doesn't waver, no matter what happens."
Maurice slightly amended his goaltending rotation to give Hutchinson an extra start in Monday's 5-2 loss to Calgary, so he can come back with him Friday against Chicago, a team Winnipeg has defeated twice this season.
How the Jets divide the goaltending workload down the stretch may end up being Maurice's greatest challenge – and the key to their playoff aspirations. Pavelec is the more established commodity, but Hutchinson is clearly a dressing-room favourite.
"He played his first NHL game last year against Boston – and we had probably 10 guys out of the lineup – and got bag-skated the day before the game," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "That's not an easy situation for anyone to go into, let alone your first NHL game – and he stood on his head, and we came up with the win. That's his story. He's overcome a lot of adversity and kept battling. He started in the East Coast League, then went to the AHL, and no matter where he was, he kept working and doing his thing.
"The thing everyone respects and loves about him is his work ethic – how he shows up and competes. You see him when he's playing; he's not talking to anybody because he's dialled in and ready to go. You see that focus out of a guy who hasn't been around for very long, it immediately gets the attention of everyone."