The Winnipeg Jets are set to begin a pivotal three-game set with the NHL-leading Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. The mini series will feature games on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings and most certainly provide some shape to the ever-changing landscape of the all-Canadian Scotia North Division.
Currently the top-two teams in the division, both in terms of total points collected and points percentage, the Maple Leafs and Jets, however, have struggled as of late. Toronto was swept in its two-game series with Vancouver by scores of 3-1 and 4-2, while Winnipeg was handed its largest loss of the season on Saturday evening, a 7-1 drubbing by Montreal.
According to Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice, the second matchup of the two-game set with Montreal was the outlier, and something his group has already learned from.
“We had a real tough game and now we want to come back and get on the right track again, with the full awareness that we’re going to see a real quality team,” he said Monday afternoon. “Over the course of the year, you see that a lot right? Every time you play a team that is one or two in the division, you know you have to be at your best to beat them. It’s different this year because there is only one first place team you see, and you’re trying to chase them. In terms of measuring stick I think when you’ll come to the rink, you’ll know the other team has some really high-end guys on their team, and you have to be at your best to beat them.”
According to Maurice, the veteran bench boss actually had a first time experience in Saturday’s blowout loss to Montreal – something he is not looking to repeat.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a game where every player was minus. And I don’t know in 25 years that I’ve ever seen that,” Maurice said candidly. “Players aren’t screaming at each other, there weren’t any fights. It’s not that kind of intensity level after a tough loss. I think we’ve handled it right. You never say it’s a good thing, but we know our opponent’s very strong tomorrow, so we’re going to have that edge coming to the rink. We’ve got to get rid of that last game, and they know they can do that by improving our play in the next game. So I think we’ll have a pretty darn focused group tomorrow.”
Putting the onus on his players to perform better is certainly a tactic Maurice has used before. According to two of his centremen, that higher level of play will start with things they can control, such as the task of winning face-offs.
“If you start with possession, it makes it a lot easier,” Paul Stastny said of his role taking face-offs. “Whether it’s offensive zone or defensive zone it’s important. But even in the neutral zone, the centre ice job, if you win that possession and get it in and start the forecheck, trust me, it’s way better than doing it the other way and being on your heels and playing defence all of a sudden.”
According to the journeyman centreman, the offensive and defensive zone face-off wins play significant roles in the creation/elimination of goals, but what often gets swept under the rug are the neutral zone starts.
“Obviously, it takes a lot more effort to go from defence to offence than it does to getting on the forecheck and just getting after it, especially early in the shift,” Stastny reflected. “Looking at the neutral zone, if you lose it, then you’re hemmed in defensively. A lot of times you’re just playing the bull and spending the next 30 or 45 seconds getting the puck out of the zone, or kind of playing a neutral zone game and it’s just a waste of a shift sometimes.”
Although Stastny has recently been shifted over to the wing alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on the team’s top offensive line, his prowess in the face-off circle has him fill-in as a specialty player on defensive or offensive zone starts at critical points games as well.
“You don’t always realize how important it is,” he said of a clean face-off win. “In the same way, if you do win the draw and you’re changing, it’s way better to have the D hold the puck, let us get it out on a change and kind of separate than it is the other way where they have the puck and you have to start the forecheck on their breakout.”
Someone else who can relate to Stastny’s face-off success is seventh-year Jets forward Adam Lowry. Having finished each of the past four seasons above the coveted 50 percent mark in the face-off department, the 27-year-old also understands the significance of a face-off win, especially against a high puck-possession team such as the Maple Leafs.
“Against Toronto, they’re one of those teams that they put their centreman in situations where they’re generally on their strong side,” Lowry suggested. “You look at the percentages some of those guys have and it’s not a lot of weak-side draws that they take. It’s mostly in areas where they’re going to succeed. So, it’s important that, especially in the D-zone, you’re bearing down and you’re making it hard so if you’re going to lose it, it’s not going to be clean. You don’t want to give them any easy chances kind of off that and if you can get possession, you get a little zone time in there, and two, it’s important.”
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With the additions of Nate Thompson and Pierre-Luc Dubois as centremen this season, as well as the return of Stastny, Lowry has been able to receive as well as give some valuable tips when it comes to lining up for puck drop.
“Adding Thompson to that group as well, you know, he’s been a guy that over his career has been extremely successful,” he said. “Talking to Stas, he’s got so much knowledge with the game; he kind of has so much wisdom with different aspects. I find we take draws kind of similarly; we use pretty brick-like sticks that give us an advantage in the circle and disadvantage in some other areas of the game.”
Going up against veterans such as Jason Spezza and John Tavares on a Maple Leafs team that ranks 11th in the league in face-off percentage, Lowry knows that he and his fellow centre icemen will need to feed off one another as the series goes along, ultimately hoping to gain that extra bit of puck possession required in a battle of two top teams.
“That’s been an area that we’re constantly trying to improve,” he said. “We’re constantly talking to (the veterans on the team), seeing what they’re doing and what’s been working for them in the circle and what hasn’t been if you’re struggling a little bit. They’ve got some tweaks if you see them kind of struggling a little bit, with losing to certain guys, a certain way, you maybe you impart a little bit of your wisdom on the ways you’ve been successful, able to get inside of them.”
As two of the highest-ranked teams (Toronto 2nd, Winnipeg 7th) in terms of goals scored per game, a focus on puck possession will be paramount to the success of both clubs this week. Puck drop between the Leafs and Jets is set for 6:00 PM central on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.