TIME TO DROP THE PUCK

It’s time for the Winnipeg Jets to put the lessons to good use.

Nearly three weeks of preparations wrapped up Wednesday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex for the NHL team, which plays its 2018-19 season opener tonight in St. Louis against the revamped Blues. Game time is 7 p.m.

It’s the first of two straight contests on the road against Central Division foes. Winnipeg meets the Dallas Stars on Saturday and then returns home to face the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday at Bell MTS Place.

Mercifully, the grind of Jets training camp and predictably tedious pre-season games are set to be replaced by real, meaningful hockey.

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It’s time for the Winnipeg Jets to put the lessons to good use.

Nearly three weeks of preparations wrapped up Wednesday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex for the NHL team, which plays its 2018-19 season opener tonight in St. Louis against the revamped Blues. Game time is 7 p.m.

It’s the first of two straight contests on the road against Central Division foes. Winnipeg meets the Dallas Stars on Saturday and then returns home to face the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday at Bell MTS Place.

Mercifully, the grind of Jets training camp and predictably tedious pre-season games are set to be replaced by real, meaningful hockey.

Veteran centre Bryan Little is as thankful as the rest in the Jets locker room.

“We’re all ready to start playing games now,” he said. “It’s just more excitement to get it started. I don’t think a lot of guys get too nervous and too worked up. We’ve all played this game such a long time, you get used to it.”

Even the teacher’s had enough of the classroom setting.

“I felt we had a really great practice Monday, and then it’s just edgy for the next two days. I feel it, like nobody’s in a really good mood by the time you leave the ice because you can’t practise the way you play, the game’s different,” head coach Paul Maurice said.

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine is ok with playing the part of decoy on the team's power play due to the abundance of weapons the team can deploy when they have the man advantage.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine is ok with playing the part of decoy on the team’s power play due to the abundance of weapons the team can deploy when they have the man advantage.

“Snarly’s not the right word, they’re edgy because they need a game, which is a good thing. I wasn’t critiquing the last two days, I couldn’t get off the ice fast enough (Wednesday). I’ve had enough, we need a game.”

Last season, the Jets finished second overall in the NHL, going 52-20-10. They dumped the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators to reach the Western Conference final before losing in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.

The core of that group remains intact and expectations are sky high.

Patrik Laine, a 44-goal scorer last year (trailing only Washington Capitals sniper Alexander Ovechkin’s NHL-best 49), said getting off to a strong start on the road is critical.

“These divisional games are always huge for us. I think we have the toughest division in the league, so every game matters. And it’s going to be a huge start for us,” Laine said. “If we can get four points, that’s going to be awesome. But we’ve just got to get the game to the level that it needs to be. We will have a good test right away.”

The Jets went 15-9-2 against Central Division rivals last season.

A master manipulator of his personnel, Maurice didn’t tinker on the eve of the season opener, sticking to line combinations and defensive pairings formed earlier in the week.

Mark Scheifele centres an explosive top line of Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, Laine is with Little and Mathieu Perreault, Jack Roslovic centres Nikolaj Ehlers and rookie winger Kristian Vesalainen, while Adam Lowry’s dependable checking trio includes Brandon Tanev and Andrew Copp.

The defensive pairings were Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien, and Joe Morrow and Tyler Myers. Forwards Brendan Lemieux and Marko Dano and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov are also available.

Winnipeg Jets' goaltender Connor Hellebuyck tied an NHL record for home wins by a goaltender last season and the team will be looking to him to be just as dominant again this year.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ goaltender Connor Hellebuyck tied an NHL record for home wins by a goaltender last season and the team will be looking to him to be just as dominant again this year.

A heavy workload for Connor Hellebuyck, a finalist for the 2017-18 Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder after a 44-win campaign, begins in St. Louis. Thirty of those victories were at Winnipeg’s downtown rink, tying an NHL record for most victories by a goalie on home ice in a season. 

Improvements made to Winnipeg’s special teams were a revelation last season.

The Jets pumped in 64 power-play goals (20 by Laine), 16 more than the previous campaign, to raise their ranking to fifth in the NHL (23.4 per cent efficiency).

When left unattended, Laine’s able to unleash blasts from the left wall, but he can also be the perfect decoy, freeing space for Scheifele and his rapid release in the slot or a heavy drive from Byfuglien at the point.

“If they try to stand next to me, I’ll just go sit in the corner or sit on the bench,” Laine joked. “That’s kind of my role in some of the games. But that’s good for us. We have four other guys on the ice who can still score and make the plays. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”

The penalty killers, meanwhile, upped their effectiveness from from 77.5 per cent in 2016-17 to 81.8 per cent last season, a jump from 26th in the NHL to a tie for seventh.

The Blues had a brutal power play last year (30th), with just 38 goals and a 15.4 per cent efficiency rating. But head coach Mike Yeo can toss out a talented crew with the man advantage, led by Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz.

Jets winger Brandon Tanev, who led his team with three short-handed tallies, said good special-teams habits need to be formed early in a season.

“The key for us is trusting the guys you’re out there with. By now, we all know the situations, and it’s key to getting into the shooting lanes, blocking shots, getting your stick in the right place, just playing aggressive,” he said. “We did a lot of that, and it really sparked our penalty kill.”

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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