ANALYSIS: First place within reach as Jets hit midway point

The Winnipeg Jets woke up on Monday morning tied for first place in points percentage and tied for second in points in the North Division.

Coming off an impressive road trip that saw them go 3-1-1, the Jets hit the midway point of the 56-game schedule on Monday night against the Montreal Canadiens.

Of course, there are always going to be areas that need cleaning up and the stiffest tests are still to come during the stretch run, but at 17-8-2 the Jets have put themselves in position to be right in the thick of things.

“We like the makeup of our team and kind of the direction we’re heading,” Jets centre Adam Lowry said recently.

“There’s still room for improvement in lots of areas of our game, but I think it’s been a real solid first half for us, and something that we’re going to want to build on heading into the second half, for sure.”

There was plenty of building done in Saturday’s series finale with the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the Jets put forth their best defensive effort of the season in what turned out to be a decisive 5-2 victory.

Taking five of six available points and improving to 2-1-1 in the season series with the Maple Leafs with six games left to play was an important step forward for the Jets, even though they were quick to downplay the significance when asked about the potential psychological boost.

“Not really,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “We knew it was going to be tough. They’re a fantastic team. They show that night in and night out. So not really. It was a big win for us. Huge two points and a great road trip, so I think that’s all we’ve got to think about.”

It was certainly an interesting road trip, one which featured a 7-1 blowout loss to the Canadiens, a pair of overtime games and a couple of hang-on-to-your-hats periods while trying to preserve leads against the Maple Leafs in the first two games of the series.

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Of course, there was elite-level goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck in both of those games — which wasn’t a real surprise given his propensity for rebounding after those rare outings he doesn’t like.

Hellebuyck’s numbers may be down slightly, but he’s still the bedrock of the Jets’ foundation and he’s the first-half MVP, despite legitimate competition from Nikolaj Ehlers (who leads his team in goals and penalties drawn) and Scheifele (who is tied for fifth in NHL scoring with 36 points in 27 games).

Neal Pionk has done a fantastic job anchoring the defence corps and his ability to continue to put up points (including 16 of 23 at even strength), while handling the shutdown role with Derek Forbort is an impressive feat.

Here are three under-the-radar storylines that stand out from the first half:

The Winnipeg Jets' Mason Appleton (82) celebrates his goal with teammates on the bench. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

The Winnipeg Jets' Mason Appleton (82) celebrates his goal with teammates on the bench. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

With Jack Roslovic not in training camp because he didn’t have a contract, Appleton got an opportunity to skate on the third line with Andrew Copp and Lowry on Day 2 of training camp and he hasn’t looked back.

Appleton’s speed and net-driving ability have been on full display and he’s already up to eight goals and 15 points (both career bests) in 27 games.

For good measure, he’s done an excellent job on the penalty kill and continues to push for increased responsibility.

“Going back to his American League career, you saw the style of player that he was and the capabilities that he had. Now it’s about developing your role and finding your niche in the NHL and then expanding on that and growing your game,” said Lowry.

“It’s one of those things where now he’s got the confidence and a little bit of the trust from Paul (Maurice). He’s able to create some more plays. He’s so effective with his speed that he gets a step on a d-man wide, he scores a couple of goals driving to the net and going wide. He creates a lot of space and backs defenders off for us.

“He’s really taken that step this year and we look forward to seeing that step continue.”

Winnipeg Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit.

Winnipeg Jets goalie Laurent Brossoit.

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Hellebuyck was always going to carry the mail for the Jets, but a compressed schedule meant that quality starts from the backup was going to be a necessity — and Brossoit has more than done his part on that front.

Thanks to Saturday’s victory over the Maple Leafs, Brossoit has won four consecutive games and is 5-1 this season with a 2.48 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.

After enduring some rough spots last season, Brossoit is playing with confidence and has earned the trust of both his teammates and the coaching staff with his work ethic and competitive spirit.

“I don’t want to get too confident, too cocky. It’s the best league in the world and there’s great players out there, so I like to keep myself pretty grounded and realistic,” Brossoit said earlier this season.

“I just prepare as best I can and hope that my best is better than anyone else in the league.”

Brossoit’s ability to ensure there isn’t a dropoff when the Jets give their Vezina-calibre starter a day off is one of the big reasons the Jets are firmly in the race for top spot.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price makes a save against the Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault during first-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price makes a save against the Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault during first-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

For a guy who started the season on waivers, even if solely as a way to maximize cap space available via LTIR (Long Term Injury Reserve), Mathieu Perreault’s play has been a revelation.

After being limited to seven goals and 15 points in 49 games during an injury-plagued season in 2019-20, Perreault already has six goals and 11 points and hasn’t missed a game.

He’s back to full health, creating chaos and providing a spark for the second power-play goal — including his perfect screen on Ehlers’ insurance marker against the Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Whether it was on the third line or the fourth, Perreault has shown he’s got something left in the tank and has been in the middle of those important contributions on the secondary scoring front.

Perreault looks primed for the second half, which is especially important for him since he’s a pending unrestricted free agent this off-season.

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Like many veterans, Perreault was feeling refreshed when he arrived for training camp after the pandemic forced an extended off-season.

“I got to take some time off just to let everything heal up,” said Perreault.

“And then I had a bunch of time to get ready for this season, which you normally don’t get. So that for sure played into how I felt going into camp this year. That long period of time off definitely helps, especially when you get older like me; it was definitely beneficial for me.

“The team has been playing well. We’re in a good spot in the standings. So, personally and team-wise, everything has been going well.”

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca, is a regular contributor on CJOB and can be reached at kenjr@shaw.ca.

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