If practice makes perfect then the Winnipeg Jets should find themselves in a prime position to pile up the points as they head out on a four-game road trip.
The Jets have done a lot more practising than playing over the last couple of weeks, with Tuesday’s game in Washington against the Capitals just their second in the last 12 days. But while the current surge in COVID-19 cases has forced a total of nine games over the past month to be postponed and has spread to several players over that stretch, things are about to look like business as usual over the next week, with the Jets playing four games over the next six days
"We’re tired of practicing," Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry said following Monday’s workout at Canada Life Centre. "We were extremely excited to be in Detroit on Thursday to play a game. We know we have a busy week, but this is what we’ve anticipated. We look forward to the challenge. Obviously, there are teams we haven’t seen in a while and our guys are excited."
The Jets won’t have it easy, though, with all four upcoming opponents occupying a playoff spot.
Winnipeg is currently on the outside looking in, its 17-12-5 record good enough for fifth place in the Central Division and three points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They do have room to climb, however, as a few of the teams ahead of them have played anywhere between five and seven more games than the Jets.
A run of wins could put the Jets in a playoff spot by the end of the week, though there’s a keen understanding among the group that it’s going to take some work to get there.
"It will a good test for our team. I think, overall, we’re just excited to play," said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. "We’ve been at home a lot here and practising a lot since the Christmas break. I think everyone’s just excited to get into a normal schedule and play against some of the best teams in the league. It’s a chance to see where we’re at and we need to get some wins here. So, it’s a big trip for us."
Heading into Monday’s slate of games, the Capitals (21-9-9) were third place in the Metropolitan Division, three points back of the New York Rangers for the top spot. The Jets follow that game up with a tilt in Nashville on Thursday, against a Predators club that has earned points in seven of their last eight games (5-1-2) to sit second in the Central Division.
The Jets wrap the trip up with back-to-back games against the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday and Sunday. The Penguins (22-10-5) and Bruins (22-11-2) have the first and second wildcard playoff spot in the East, respectively.
The Penguins had a slow start to the season, but have caught fire in recent weeks, boasting a 12-2-0 record dating back to early December. The Bruins have also been dominant of late, winning eight of their last nine games, including five straight.
"We realize we’ve got four hard games this week, but for us our focus isn’t what’s going to happen on the weekend. We’ve got to go in with the mindset that we’ve got to get ready to play Washington," Lowry said. "The guys that are going to play, they’ll be excited to play, they’ll be ready to play, and they’ll be rested."
It’s been an interesting couple weeks for the Jets. Like most teams around the NHL, they’ve seen several players enter the league’s COVID-19 protocol, while others have been out with injury. All the roster uncertainty has created a challenge for Lowry to fill out his lineup.
But other than defenceman Brenden Dillon and backup goalie Eric Comrie, both of whom should be out of protocol soon and are expected to join the team over the next week, as well as Evgeny Svechnikov (lower-body) and Blake Wheeler (lower-body), each of which is dealing with an injury and could also play on the road trip, the Jets have their healthiest group in some time.
For those who have managed to evade getting the coronavirus or suffering an injury, it’s been a lot of on-ice workouts. Lowry has prioritized conditioning, running his players through heavy skating drills. Some have stayed after practice to compete three-on-three, in what has sometimes been a spirited battle.
"It’s been a different kind of situation for us. Nobody’s used to playing one game a week and practicing for five, six days, then getting back on the road," Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "Practising is great but playing the game is what we all love. Since the Christmas break, it feels like we’ve just been practising and practising and it doesn’t compare to playing games, so it’ll be fun to get back on the road."
Lowry said he expects his group to bring a similar energy to what they had against Detroit, when they faced the Red Wings after having several days off at home. The schedule over the last couple weeks has allowed the team to focus on on-ice areas in need of improvement, but it’s also created an opportunity to reset off the ice, whether that be improving diet or sleep cycle.
Either way, there will be few excuses to come out slow on this road trip. Especially with a valuable eight points up for grabs, all of which are needed by the Jets to get back into the playoff hunt.
"The biggest thing (the recent schedule has done) is it’s allowed us to grow as a group, for the guys to have an understanding how there are going to be some subtle changes from myself and Paul (Maurice)," Lowry said, speaking of his predecessor. "Practice, we run a lot of similar drills. Biggest thing is that we were able to work a little longer. We were able to do things a little differently from a practice standpoint. And I like the direction, I like the place we’re at today."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.