The Winnipeg Jets likely will find out what kind of team they have over the next week as they play four games against some of the toughest the Western Conference has to offer: the Vancouver Canucks, the Chicago Blackhawks and back-to-back contests with the St. Louis Blues.
December is usually too early for crunch time, but with the Jets coming off a three-game road trip on which they garnered just a single point in an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, they can either show they belong with the big boys or join the pack of middle-of-the-road squads.
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Winnipeg plays three of its next four at home, starting with a Monday game against the Canucks.
Connor Hellebuyck will have a big say in which way the Jets go. The team’s biggest surprise with his solid play through the first quarter of the season, the No. 1 netminder has seen the shine come off some of his numbers lately.
In five of his past six starts, Hellebuyck produced a save percentage below .900. The lone exception was a 5-0 shutout against Ottawa, a game in which his teammates dominated in all zones, outshooting the Senators 49-21.
The good news for Winnipeg is that Jets goalie Steve Mason, who sustained a concussion a couple of weeks ago, returned to practice this weekend and could return to the lineup this week.
Despite the recent troubles, the Jets (17-8-5) are still 10-2-1 at Bell MTS Place this season.
Winnipeg defenseman Josh Morrissey was disappointed in the start of the road trip, which included losses to the Detroit Red Wings and the Florida Panthers, but thought the Jets made huge strides against Tampa Bay, widely considered to be the best team in the NHL right now.
“I was pretty proud of the way we played. We battled very hard,” Morrissey told the Winnipeg Free Press. “They’re a really good team over there and a team that’s had a great start. For us, we gave ourselves a chance to win. It was a great, gutsy effort for us, considering the last couple of games that we didn’t really like the full 60 minutes.”
The Canucks come to town smarting from a 4-2 loss at Calgary on Saturday in which they gave up a trio of goals in the last nine minutes. It was the third time in as many weeks that Vancouver led after the second period and lost.
The Canucks will be without the services of their third-leading goal scorer, Sven Baertschi, who took a wrist shot directly in the face against the Flames and returned home. Early speculation is he may have broken his jaw or cheekbone or shattered some teeth — or all three.
In addition to Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin stepping up to fill the void, Vancouver will also be looking for some help from forward Brock Boeser, who leads all rookies with 15 goals.
Canucks coach Travis Green said he likes the fact Boeser has bulged the twine playing on different lines and in multiple ways.
“That’s the key for any goal-scorer in this league,” Green told the Vancouver Province. “Unless you have an absolute laser beam, which only a few guys in the league have, you have to find ways to score around the net.”