Jets-Maple Leafs Preview
An unimpressive start seemed to quickly dismiss the Winnipeg Jets as possible playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference.
They've been anything but inferior lately, however, using a strong penalty kill, quality goaltending and a variety of goal-scorers for their recent surge.
The Jets have a chance to prove themselves in road games against two teams that sit ahead of them in the standings this weekend, beginning Saturday night against the sputtering Toronto Maple Leafs.
Winnipeg (14-11-2), which is one point behind Toronto and two back of Sunday's opponent, Ottawa, was lackluster while beginning with a 5-8-1 record. It gave up 3.2 goals per game and struggled to kill off penalties as opponents scored on 34.1 percent of their chances.
The Jets are 9-3-1 since, and have won their last two. They defeated the Maples Leafs 5-2 at home on Tuesday followed by Thursday's 3-1 home win over the New York Rangers.
"To me the difference is that we're emotionally involved in the game, both the emotions and physicality," coach Claude Noel told the team's official website. "That I think is driving our team."
Winnipeg has allowed eight goals over its last five games (4-0-1) and continues to be much improved on the penalty kill. The Jets haven't given up a power play goal in 10 straight, holding opponents scoreless on 26 chances dating back to Feb. 24. They're the only team not to allow a power-play goal over that stretch.
They've also had the benefit of better goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec has a 1.69 goals-against average over his last four games. Pavelec hasn't been announced yet as Saturday's starter, but stopped 24 of 26 shots against the Maple Leafs earlier in the week, and is 3-1-0 with a 2.01 GAA in his last four against them.
Plenty of players are also contributing to Winnipeg's offense, with 10 scoring at least one goal in the last five games.
"We've got to feed on what we've done the last couple games and the success we've had and the good feelings that come from that," said Andrew Ladd, who has a team-high 26 points. "When things are happening and things are going well, you get a sense of your game."
Things have not been going well lately for the Maple Leafs (15-12-1).
They've lost four in a row and have yielded four or more goals in six of eight. At home against Pittsburgh on Thursday, they squandered a 1-0 third-period lead and lost 3-1.
"It's not all doom and gloom, but it's doom and gloom when you lose the way we lost," coach Randy Carlyle said. "It tears at the fabric of your heart because we're finding a way to lose a game instead of finding a way to win a game."
Toronto is one of the league's better scoring teams with 2.9 goals per game, but is among the worst in shots allowed (31.9) and commits the most giveaways (11.3).
The Maple Leafs could use more from Nazem Kadri, who is the team's second-leading scorer with 25 points but hasn't registered one over his last three contests.
Winnipeg's Nik Antropov, who is riding a four-game point streak, had a goal and two assists against the Leafs on Tuesday.
Phil Kessel accounted for both of Toronto's goals and has scored in each of his last seven games against the Winnipeg franchise.