Jets making hockey world take notice

Recently I've been reminded of a comment, unprovoked it should be noted, from an NHL general manager back in September when discussing a wide range of preseason subjects.

"The Jets are going to be better than most people think," he quipped.

To which I said, "Really?"

This veteran hockey man from another Western Conference club believed some of the Jets’ younger core players were ready to take a step forward this season.

A 2-5-0 start through the opening two weeks of the season looked like more of the same from the Thrashers-turned-Jets.

And yet, that adversity might have been what this team needed to see the light.

"Having struggles in the first week or two turned out to be a good thing for our team,’’ Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice told ESPN.com Wednesday.

"The guys have been good; I like the room; I like their willingness to grab hold of what we need to fix and do their best. It was a positive. You can’t always ease into things; sometimes it’s got to be a little bit harder to make a change. It’s not like we’re playing flawless hockey by any means, but we understand what we’re doing and I think we’re pretty committed to it right now."

A 5-0-1 run starting Oct. 26, a stretch where they’ve given up only six goals, has people around the hockey world taking notice.

"They come at you with a lot of speed with [Blake] Wheeler and [Evander] Kane in particular; [Bryan] Little is a good skater; [Adam] Lowry was a good addition to their team," said a different Western Conference team executive on Wednesday. "Their defense has come under scrutiny, but it’s way better than last year, way better. And now they’ve got the goaltending at a higher level. The goalie also came under some criticism last year and early this year. But obviously the last 5-6 games it’s been air tight. All those things make a huge difference."

The Jets, ladies and gentlemen, are in the thick of it in the NHL’s toughest division.

"We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole early on and it kind of felt like the same old story from years past," Jets star forward Wheeler told ESPN.com Wednesday. "I really [think] we’re just starting to figure out what kind of team we’re going to be. We’re not the Pittsburgh Penguins, we’re not the Chicago Blackhawks. Fans aren’t going to get the five-goal, free-pizza night when they come watch us play. I think we’re starting to figure that out, that we don’t need to blow everyone out to feel good about ourselves. We can sit back and be responsible, try to suffocate other teams and, if we get our one or two chances, we try to bury them in the net. It’s given us success."

The Jets are among the league leaders defensively, giving up only 2.00 goals against per game.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec has been dynamite, quieting his many critics for the time being.

"He’s been solid all the way through since I got here, like a lot of goalies he’s had some off nights -- not so much this year -- but since I got here he’s always had more good nights than not," said Maurice.

The Jets are playing much better defensively in front of Pavelec, which goes hand in hand with the present run.

But is this current form sustainable? After all, they’re only 28th in the league in goals for (1.85 a game). No better way to find out than matching up against the hottest team in the East as the high-flying Penguins visit the MTS Centre on Thursday night.

"Pittsburgh is averaging just over four goals a game," Maurice said. "We’re going to be put to a real test tomorrow night."

Like the test the Jets faced Sunday night when Winnipeg prevailed 1-0 in Chicago against the powerhouse Blackhawks.

"A 1-0 win in Chicago, there’s a value to that for us that we can hang onto for a while, no question," Maurice said.

"But the real challenge is having that kind of focus and concept against all the teams, that’s when you’re making that next step, when your game isn’t changing much regardless of the opponent."

So, are we really seeing this Jets team burgeoning in front of our eyes or is this a tease?

For Wheeler, it’s the feeling of a team coming together.

"I think it’s a maturity thing, honestly," Wheeler said. "It took us that wake-up call to realize, 'This is what we are, this is what we’re not.' I don’t think we’d gotten to that point in the past few years. You looked at the teams on all the highlight shows having success and scoring all those goals and we wanted to be one of those teams, we wanted to do such and such. But that’s not who we are. We’re figuring that out. I think that’s a positive thing to have that identity and believe in it.

"From top to bottom, I think we’ve got guys in our locker room that believe if we do what we’ve been doing the last little stretch, it doesn’t matter who we’re going to play, it’s not going to be a whole lot of fun to play us. If we win 1-0 in a shootout, that’s the way it’s going to be, but that’s what it’s going to take to win games."