By Scott Billeck – @scottbilleck
New Coach, new system, new direction. Paul Maurice has his troops trending upwards, but is it enough to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself for the Winnipeg Jets?
The Winnipeg Jets had gone four games without a loss during Maurice’s first four games behind the bench, a streak that was ended on Thursday night after a valiant-but-losing effort against the San Jose Sharks.
It is important to note that the Jets have strung together four consecutive wins this season. Under their now-former head coach, Claude Noel, the Jets won four-straight games back in November. Wins against Nashville, San Jose, Detroit and Philadelphia were impressive, and the Jets were actually back in the playoff picture after a horrible month of October.
The problem? The Jets went on to lose four straight games including a brutal home loss to one of the league’s worst teams in the Calgary Flames.
Back to square one.
The Jets then started to pick up steam again, a month later, beating the Wild, Avalanche and exacting revenge on the Buffalo Sabres, a team that humiliated them earlier in the month. Playoff talk had started once again. Even with their poor record, the Western Conference regressed, leaving the Jets with a hope and a prayer.
The problem with that? They lost five straight games after that streak. A road trip that started in Ottawa ended in Pittsburgh and the Jets had only lost ground, losing all three of those games away from the MTS Centre. Things didn’t get much better upon their return home where the Jets continued losing. Demoralizing losses to the Lightning and the Blue Jackets spelled the end of Noel.
Since then, the Winnipeg Jets – under the tutelage of Maurice – have gone 4-1, including four-straight wins before their most recent loss in San Jose on Thursday.
But Jets fans have seen this show before. Their team puts together a string of wins only to have their progress erased by consecutive losses. Fact is, they did it in both January and March of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, with a similar looking team.
So is it different under Maurice?
Given his team’s 4-1 record, the resurgence of No. 1 goalie Ondrej Pavelec and the overall morale of the team itself, it would be easy to say yes.
Pavelec has a record of 4-1-0 while holding a .942 save percentage and 1.60 goals against average since Maurice’s arrival. Pavelec has held the opposition to two goals or less in each of the last five games. He even held the league’s best team, the Anaheim Ducks to only two goals.
Maurice has installed a defence-first system and it has certainly helped Pavelec during this stretch.
However, morale is always a tough thing to judge. But if you were in that dressing room before and after Noel, any average Joe would be able to tell a stark difference. The players won’t come out and say it was Noel’s fault, but telling admissions, such as the one Andrew Ladd made about Maurice letting him and his teammates know they are still “pretty good” players, is evidence enough.
But what are words without actions?
Usually nothing, especially in the case of the Jets before Noel’s departure. But Maurice has given substance to the words echoed in the Jets room. The defense-first philosophy has been talked about, and even backed up in the team’s 3-2 win over Anaheim. The Jets’ 36 blocked shots made fans wonder if John Tortorella was behind the bench.
Will history repeat itself over the next few games? It’s possible. There is still little reason to think this team is forever-changed. The personnel is exactly the same. If this team is playing above its own abilities, then we will see it against Toronto, Chicago and Vancouver in the coming days.
If the team is playing to the level it always could, simply because Maurice has given them the confidence to do so and the tools to go out and do it, then give the man a contract beyond this season.
At this point, progress isn’t to be measured by wins only. It must be measured by performances on the ice and thus far, those performances have been solid from the Jets.