Stone-cold penalty killers

The Winnipeg Jets require more of the same from their outfit of crackerjack penalty killers as the NHL team pushes for a lofty landing spot in the North Division.

Down a man, the Jets have been stingy during the past three weeks, allowing just five goals in 34 situations (85.3 per cent) over nine contests. And that’s significantly enhanced the unit’s overall efficiency (80.3 per cent) for the 2021 regular season, elevating it to 12th in the league.

Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press files</p>
<p>Trevor Lewis (right) has made a great contribution the Jets penalty-killing success this season. It helps having reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck (left) making big saves between the pipes, he says.</p>
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Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press files

Trevor Lewis (right) has made a great contribution the Jets penalty-killing success this season. It helps having reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck (left) making big saves between the pipes, he says.

The PK was operating at 78.4 per cent from the season-opener Jan. 14 through to the end of March, good for just 16th spot.

Winnipeg has 11 games left on the slate and is, indeed, playoff bound, with an opportunity to seize top spot in the all-Canadian division or finish as low as third behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers.

The Jets have been shorthanded the sixth-fewest times (122) in the league and need to maintain their discipline down the stretch, however, when inevitable trips to the sin bin happen the penalty killers need to stem the tide.

Special teams, particularly the competence of his penalty killers, will be a major factor in where head coach Paul Maurice’s squad slots in.

“It’s the more important of the two (special teams). Being able and being confident on the penalty kill in the playoffs is a critical piece to your game… having a structure,” he said. “We’re seeing some pretty powerful power plays. Edmonton is up there, Toronto is up there and they were certainly leading the league for an awfully long time. So, every time one of those power-play units gets on the ice, it’s dangerous.

“I don’t think that you get on a three- or a four-kill run and feel like that gives you a better chance to kill the fifth one. Because the guys that are going out here are all high-end shooters and that can turn real fast. Penalty killing will be a critical element.”

Maurice has been consistent in his approach, leaning on veteran savvy when the Jets are shorthanded. He primarily turns to the duo of Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, and then follows with Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis. On the back end, he runs Dylan DeMelo and Derek Forbort together, and then goes with a mix of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Tucker Poolman, the relative youngsters.

And he now has the experienced Jamie Benn to slip into the rotation. He’s expected to make his Winnipeg debut Thursday night when the Jets host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Game time is 6 p.m. at the downtown rink.

Benn was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks 10 days ago at the NHL trade deadline for a sixth-round pick in this summer’s NHL Draft. He was paired with DeMelo at practice Wednesday morning and is expected to replace Logan Stanley in the lineup.

The Leafs (28-13-5) are winless in five games but hold a four-point lead on the Jets (27-15-3) for top spot in the North.

Lewis, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, said familiarity breeds success — and confidence — within the group of penalty killers. Knowing a Vezina-calibre netminder is the last line of defence doesn’t hurt, either.

“I think we have a good unit, a lot of guys that have killed penalties for a long time and they know their role. It starts with being good on the faceoffs. You kill a good 15 seconds by getting a faceoff win and getting pucks out. Everyone’s in lanes, blocking shots. Obviously, it helps when (Connor Hellebuyck is) back there making big saves, too,” said Lewis.

Winnipeg hasn’t exactly been blown to smithereens by the heavy firepower of the Maples Leafs’ power play, surrendering just two goals on 19 Toronto chances.

Then again, no one else in the division has lately, either.

During the first seven weeks of the year, the Leafs’ PP — with 33-goal scorer Auston Matthews leading a glitzy first unit that includes Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly — was running at 32.5 per cent. The last seven weeks it’s gone ice cold, running at 10.3 per cent.

But Lewis said danger lurks with every power-play chance, when world-class players are zipping the puck around.

“There’s definitely guys you want to pay attention to and limit their time and space a little bit more than others. But you watch a lot of video, and I think our coaches do a good job of breaking it down and showing you their tendencies and things like that,” he said.

“Whether it is Matthews or (Connor) McDavid, trying to force them into a spot where they’re not as comfortable as they would be from the top of the circle walking into a one-time or something like that. So, I think we do a good job of pre-scouting and then on the ice you see something and you talk about it when you come off the ice, for sure.”

The McDavid-led power play has done the most damage against Winnipeg, striking six times on 23 opportunities for the Edmonton Oilers, including a pair on six chances Saturday night in an impressive 3-0 road win.

But DeMelo noted nights like that have been few and far between.

“If things don’t go my way or the team’s way, I usually dwell on it probably that night and then I try to flush it,” he said. “I’m a big believer in watching film and watching shifts and just watching the goals I’m on for, the goals against and just all my shifts in general. I’m a big believer, not to get consumed with it and rely on it too much because it’s easier to manipulate things on video and break it down. You have to kind of think of the moment and what you were thinking of during the play. You brought up our penalty kill and obviously (Edmonton) had a couple on us, a couple of point shots that went through.

“We’ve done a good job on the PK for the majority of the season and usually when we’ve allowed a few, we’ve really clamped it down going forward or in the next games following maybe a bad outing. I think we did a lot of good things. They had an extra player than we did, they executed and they’ve got some good players and they got a couple on us.”

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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