I’m pretty sure if you polled most NHL execs, coaches, players and fans before the season started, most of them (outside of Winnipeg, of course) would have said the Winnipeg Jets would either finish out of the playoffs or maybe sneak in as the eighth seed. Now here we are, less than seven weeks away from the end of the campaign, and the Jets aren’t just looking like a playoff team, they have a legitimate shot at winning the Southeast Division.
Before anyone makes any “SouthLeast” jokes, it’s important to note two things: one, the Northwest Division is almost as bad, top to bottom. And two, the Jets would be the fifth seed in the East based strictly on points if the season ended today, so they’re more deserving than the smarmiest fans may have you believe.
That’s even more true when you consider that the main thing the Jets were supposed to have going for them going into the year–a scary home ice advantage provided by their rabid fans–hasn’t quite worked out the way people expected. Winnipeg is barely above .500 at home at 7-6, and a surprising 9-6-2 on the road.
As long as we’re talking stats, it’s worth pointing out that the Jets have a -6 goal differential, meaning they are winning the close games and losing the blowouts. That’s not exactly a recipe for a division winner, so how exactly did they end up here?
Consistency, for starters. The Jets haven’t gone three games without a point since February 17, and they’ve managed at least a point in seven of their last eight. They’ve also been dominant against the New York area teams, going 5-0-1 in games against the Rangers, Islanders and Devils. If the Jets do win the Southeast, they’ll have the Big Apple to thank.
On offense, three guys are steering the Jets’ ship. Captain Andrew Ladd is having his finest NHL season to date, tied for the team lead in goals and leading the squad in assists and points. Blake Wheeler, whose career high in an 82-game season is 21 goals, may surpass that in this shortened season since he also has 14. And Evander Kane has scored 12 goals while dishing out n impressive 95 hits.
That trio has exactly half of the team’s 80 goals, with no one else contributing more than five. Winnipeg has made it work though, despite a defense that has been good, not great. Ondrej Pavelec has carried most of the load in net, sporting a save percentage over .900 but a goals against average closer to three than two. He’s one of only four goalies with 20 or more starts who has yet to record a shutout, but that puts him in surprisingly good company since Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller are two of the others.
All of which tells us something that you’ve probably already suspected: the Jets are one of those teams that is more than the sum of its parts. They’re playing with confidence, which goes a long way in the NHL. And unless somebody does something about it, yes, they could win the division.
The Caps can help stop them by winning the three meetings they have left, starting with the rarely seen back-to-back contests in Winnipeg on Thursday night. The Carolina Hurricanes are only two points back with a game in hand, but they’ve lost four straight and appear to be reeling without Cam Ward. Time is running out, and the very last Southeast title may end up in the city that isn’t in the Southeast at all.