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The Winnipeg Jets are hoping the third time will be the charm as they try to douse a Calgary Flames squad that has given them plenty of trouble this season.
A disappointing 6-3 loss in November was followed by a 4-1 defeat in December. Winnipeg will attempt to avoid the sweep as they close out a homestand by welcoming their western neighbours Saturday night at Bell MTS Place. (6 p.m.).
“Their new coach (Bill Peters) has put in a good system for their team. They play hard, and also have some grit. Their back end is considered one of the best in the league. It’s a deep team that plays fast — pretty comparable to us, I find. They’re just a good team. That’s why they’ve got the best of us the last two games,” defenceman Ben Chiarot said following Friday’s optional practice.
Winnipeg (41-25-4) is coming off a hard-fought 4-3 win over Boston Thursday that snapped a two-game losing streak and kept them on top of the Central Division, one point ahead of Nashville, with two games in hand. Calgary (43-20-7) was a point back of San Jose for the Pacific Division lead heading into action Friday night, when they host the New York Rangers in the first half of a back-to-back.
The Jets and Flames are similar, in many ways. Both have plenty of speed and skill courtesy of a young core and some solid veterans. An all-Canadian Western Conference final between them is certainly a possibility.
“A lot of good goal scorers on that team,” said forward Jack Roslovic. “They’ve got a lot of guys over 50, 60 points now. So just play a good defensive game. We can score with the best of anyone. But we’ve got to be able to prevent and wear them down, frustrate them, give them nothing.
“And if we get two opportunities and they get two opportunities, we’ve got to score one out of two. There’s a little bit of puck luck and bounce that comes with the game, in general. But we’ve got to take that out as much as possible and do the best we can to keep them off the scoresheet.”
Flashy Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau is coming off a six-point game Tuesday night against New Jersey and will garner some Hart Trophy votes this year as league MVP. He’s currently fifth in NHL scoring with 90 points.
“He does a lot of things other guys can’t do… I’ve played against him growing up — from even juniors — I got to play with him and against him, got to watch him do it to other people, so I know I’m not the only one,” defenceman Jacob Trouba said.
“That’s kind of what the narrative’s been. Always, even when we played in juniors; he was too small to play in college and then he went and destroyed college. Then he was too small to play in the NHL and now he’s destroying the NHL… he’s proved them wrong every step of the way.”
Jets coach Paul Maurice had nothing but praise for the Flames, who outscored the Jets by a combined score of 10-4 in the first two contests.
“They’re a good team. They’ve got pieces of all kinds of game. They’ve got enough bite in their game, play hard enough. Got a really nice skill level, they got real good structure…. every line kind of understands their own identity. But I don’t know that there’s anything yet that I would say there’s a theme to the two games,” said Maurice.
“I didn’t mind our second game against Calgary, I thought we were all right in that. The truth is I don’t know if I have a good enough handle on what Winnipeg and Calgary means yet.”
This will be the ninth straight game the Jets have played against a team that was in a playoff spot when the puck dropped. Winnipeg is 4-4-0 so far. The Jets hit the road for three games after this one, with cellar-dwelling Los Angeles and Anaheim followed by Vegas.
“We’ve been in a good place in the standings for a long time. You can see guys get a little comfortable. You play teams like that and it brings out the best in us,” said Chiarot. “It’s important to keep our intensity up down the stretch, even knowing where we’re at as far as playoffs go.”
Getting their game in a good place appears to be more important than whether they finish first or second, although Chiarot admitted there’s some incentive.
“It’s important. We take a lot of pride in what we do. First place in the Central is like a feather in the cap. It’s not the end of the world if we’re not, but it’s a nice little perk to have and something to be proud of,” he said.
“We’ve got a pretty confident group. We’ve been pretty good, if we lose one or two, bouncing back. Paul (Maurice) stays on us about it, making sure we’re not getting too complacent or comfortable knowing we have a good hold on a playoff spot.”
Indeed, an impressive quality for the Jets is that they haven’t lost three straight regulation games this season. They have dropped two straight in regulation five times this year, always following it up with a victory as they did Thursday against the Bruins.
“That’s an important thing to have, especially come playoff time. You can barely lose two in a row, come playoffs. Just being able to create momentum throughout games… the feeling in the dressing room has to be right. This streak that we’ve gone through is going to be beneficial for the team coming down the most important stretch,” said Roslovic.
“I think we’re in a good spot, in terms of we learn how to handle losing. We learn how to battle some adversity, especially playing some good playoff teams. Then I think we’ll ramp it up and we’ll reach the peak right at the start of the playoffs.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.