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Come flying out of the gate

Nathan Beaulieu called it the million-dollar question before offering his two cents on the subject.

What’s it going to take for the Winnipeg Jets to snag one of four playoff spots this season in the NHL’s all-Canadian North Division?

“It’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be like a lot of playoff series. Every game matters,” Beaulieu, back with the Jets for a second full season, said following Day 8 of training camp Monday. “You get behind the eight-ball early this season and it’s gonna be a tough grind to get back. Our team is built for this challenge. It’s gonna be a grind and we’re just excited to be a part of it.”

The race for a playoff spot begins in earnest for the Jets on Thursday, when they welcome the Calgary Flames to town for what will be first of nine meetings between the two clubs. It’s a similar setup for the remaining five teams in the division, with Winnipeg playing the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks nine times, while facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens 10 times.

In total, the Jets will play 56 regular-season games in the 2021 truncated season owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Four of those clubs will earn a berth into the post-season, with the first two playoff series being played within the division before reaching a final four made up of each division winner.

Mark Scheifele watches more hockey than most of his colleagues. Few have the time or will to study their opponent as thoroughly as the Jets’ No. 1 centre.

So when he talks in basic terms, such as the need for a strong start, it carries more importance than an otherwise worn-out cliché. Scheifele says the intensity is only going to climb from here.

“It’s going to start quick and you’ve got to be right on the ball right away. That’s going to be the biggest thing,” he said. “The team that stays with it the longest or for the most consistent amount of time is going to be the team that ends up on top.”

While starting slow out of the gate isn’t ideal in the most normal of seasons, find yourself on the losing side of games for a long enough stretch to begin the year and it could very well be a death blow to your playoff chances. Starting strong would have the opposite effect, with a string of solid games providing an early cushion for what should be a gruelling condensed schedule.

“The first thing that comes to mind is consistency. Not that there’s any nights off in any given year but when every one is a division game and you play a team eight, nine, 10 times, if we can bring that consistent effort and stay consistent in our routes and the way we play we’re gonna be in most games and in a good spot,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. “We can’t come off, we just got to keep the pedal down, keep working, keep doing things that we know are gonna help us be successful. I think it all starts with that consistency for us.”

Like all 31 teams this year, the Jets have been forced to work under a shortened training camp, which kicked off Jan. 3 and includes just 11 on-ice workouts. Head coach Paul Maurice has mixed in two scrimmage games —one last week, the other Monday — to help raise the intensity level.

The final two practices ahead of Thursday’s game will look more structured by design, Maurice said, adding that in his mind training camp is now over and Tuesday and Wednesday will act as regular team practices.

Maurice said he doesn’t plan to run his guys to the ground over the next 48 hours, but he also doesn’t want them to let up on the intensity. He’s sure he won’t have to manufacture intensity, either. After all, the players have been off long enough that they’re motivation should be oozing come puck drop Thursday.

“I’ve liked our intensity an awful lot. It’s certainly been a grind to it. We haven’t done a lot of odd-man rushes or easy flow drills, and there is a feeling sometimes when you get closer to a big game that you want to pull off your team and give them a chance to get up and down the ice and feel the puck and get that good feeling offensively,” Maurice said. “But I feel that we’ve invested in the grind here and invested in a competition for the puck and don’t want to lose that. And we decided that it would be duration based, so we’re going to go hard, but we’re just not going to go as long.

“We will shorten our duration but we are not going to kind of demand that intensity. It’s there, the players have it all figured out. This is a short season, they came to camp in shape. They know that we’ve got to go right from the start. They have also been off for a long time. Everyone is jacked up to play hockey. Coaches want to coach, players want to play. There’s a lot of pent-up excitement and enthusiasm and probably aggression, but we’ll see early.”

If the Jets do struggle coming out of the gate, the way the schedule is designed this season should help build animosity for their opponents. Not only are the Jets playing the same five teams this year, they’ll also be playing them in consecutive games throughout the season. Only seven times do the Jets play a game against an opponent and not see them the next time they hit the ice. While most of those stretches of games are limited to back-to-back affairs, four times this season the Jets will meet the same team in three straight games, with one four-game consecutive stretch against the Flames in early February.

“Throughout the whole league there’s going to be a lot of good games, a lot of good hockey teams playing against each other. In the North Division it’s just going to be magnified; all being in Canada, we know the fans up in Canada, not just in Winnipeg but all across the country,” Scheifele said. “That motivates us, that motivates you to work that much harder. We won’t know what each game is going to have because we haven’t experienced it yet, but I’m sure it will come on us pretty quick.”

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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.

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