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Jets’ mini-series vs. Oilers provides important answers to pressing questions

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WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets look like a team that’s spent ample time studying for the exam.

They are clearly not in the procrastination stage or nervously cramming in the wee hours of the morning to try and eke out a respectable mark on that mid-term.

And while the true tests are really just beginning with the quarter-point of the season right around the corner, it’s fair to say this two-game mini-series with the Edmonton Oilers provided some important answers to a couple of pressing questions surrounding the Jets.

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For all of the chatter about improvements to personnel and a renewed commitment to playing without the puck as a five-man unit, testing your mettle against two of the very best players in the NHL in consecutive games represented an important evaluation ground.

After coming away with three of a possible four points after Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Oilers, it’s safe to say the Jets passed this appraisal with flying colours.

Sure, there was a bit of an expected sting to not earning the extra point in the penalty shot contest, especially after going zero-for-five on the power play, which included an inability to convert on a double minor that carried over into overtime.

That’s really just nit-picking, which is precisely what teams trying to show that they can be among the elite are required to do as they push to reach the gold standard in the Western Conference standings.

In two games against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl this week, the Jets allowed a single goal at even strength — and that came on an extraordinary individual effort from the Oilers captain just 28 seconds after Nikolaj Ehlers opened the scoring in the third period.

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That’s impressive, no matter how you dissect it.

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And it’s the type of effort that can help reinforce belief for a team with high hopes.

There’s plenty of competition in the Central Division specifically, but with the way the Jets played on Thursday after a 5-1-1 homestand, they’re serving notice that the hype surrounding the off-season moves was warranted.

This is a good hockey team that is beginning to show some noticeable signs of improvement, while recognizing there’s still room for future growth.

Much of the discussion this week centred around the Jets’ willingness to work as a five-man unit defensively.

“That’s exactly it. We were controlling the middle of our ice,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who made 31 saves Thursday. “Getting in shot lanes, controlling rebounds, breaking the puck out really fast. It led right into our offensive game. We had our feet moving and it was working.”

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Hellebuyck is dialled in right now, delivering the type of Vezina-calibre play that is expected of him. He has allowed two goals or fewer in six consecutive starts while playing a technically-sound style and battling through traffic to find pucks and secure them. He’s calm in the crease and his composure inspires confidence right through the lineup.

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Hellebuyck will be a spectator on Friday night as the Jets face the Vancouver Canucks, but he’s earned the night off and will be well-rested when he’s back between the pipes on Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the meantime, Eric Comrie is ready to build on his prior four strong showings as the Jets get set to face a Canucks club that has dropped five consecutive games and is clearly in desperation mode.

It’s natural for folks around these parts to draw some comparisons to the 2017-18 campaign, when the Jets finished second in the NHL behind the Nashville Predators and set franchise records for wins (52) and points (114).

Much of the core group remains intact, with several notable exceptions.

But the biggest difference relates to where those players are in their respective development paths.

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The aforementioned Hellebuyck isn’t early in his career and in the midst of serving notice to what type of goalie he might actually be. He’s an established veteran who not only is considered to be one of the very best at his position, he’s got the hardware to prove it.

The forward group remains dynamic, but there are no teenagers learning the ropes who might need to be sheltered or have their minutes monitored. There are snipers, playmakers, checkers and everything in between.

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There are a number of players on the roster playing better than they ever have before — and that’s saying something.

As for the defence, it’s not as physical as the one that included the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers and Dmitry Kulikov, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough stiffness or skill to go around either.

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The current composition features a nice blend of qualities, while providing highly efficient zone exits and adding another layer to the offensive attack.

“We’ve got some size back there, we’ve got some intensity back there, some speed,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said earlier this week. “So we’ve got a little bit of everything and we’re putting some numbers up.”

The Jets aren’t just putting numbers up these days, they’re laying the foundation for the type of game that is required to achieve sustainable success when the going gets tough.

That’s part of the reason Maurice could barely contain his enthusiasm during his post-game session with reporters on Thursday night.

He got a glimpse of the team he’s envisioned and he can’t wait to see what the finished product is eventually going to look like.

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“Those are the two best games we’ve played this year, even in that five-game stretch that we won,” said Maurice. “Those were two well-played games. And they played hard, too, so it made it more valuable. We’ve seen a lot of growth in our team in our last two games.”



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Kansas City Royals fire manager Mike Matheny

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