1. Jets no longer thrashing around
I must admit I didn’t give the Winnipeg Jets much of a chance to be in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference this season and likewise figured it wouldn’t matter much to the NHL-starved fans in Winnipeg now that the Jets had returned home. But head coach Claude Noel said it didn’t take long for the astute fans in the prairie city to give it to the home team when they weren’t playing well. He recalled a game against Florida on Nov. 10 when the Panthers ate the Jets’ lunch at home in a 5-2 victory, and the fans let the hometown boys know it.
“They were not happy,” Noel told ESPN.com this week. “I think that was good, though. It was like the honeymoon was over. We got exactly what we deserved.”
Since then, the Jets have used the raucous MTS Centre to their advantage -- something that almost never happened when the team was in Atlanta -- running their home record to 9-2-1. Overall, they are an impressive 11-5-1 at home.
The fans in Winnipeg aren’t coming for “the event” Noel noted; they’re coming for the game. “The fans here, they watch the game,” he said.
As of Thursday morning, the Jets were in 11th place in the conference, just one point out of eighth place. They’ll need to get better on the road, where they are 4-8-4, but Noel is happy with the way the team is trending with better special-teams work, good goaltending and an overall toughness that wasn’t apparent earlier in the season.
“We were all over the map” earlier in the season, Noel said. “We’re a lot more stabilized now. We’re trying to play fast and responsible, and we’re doing that.”
With Bryan Little and Evander Kane leading a youthful charge offensively, the Jets would be happy to trade the honeymoon for a couple of unexpected home playoff dates in the spring. Surprisingly, that could be in the cards.
2. Bachman turns it into overdrive
One of the reasons we were skeptical of the Dallas Stars’ ability to shoulder their way into the playoff discussion in the Western Conference was starting netminder Kari Lehtonen's injury history.
Lehtonen and the Stars got off to a great start, but again, Lehtonen is on the shelf with a groin injury -- not the first time he’s dealt with core body issues. Credit rookie Richard Bachman with stepping into the breach and keeping the Stars at or near the top of the Pacific Division standings. A native of Salt Lake City, Bachman moved to a small town near Lake Placid, N.Y., where his family ran a bakery for a time. Bachman ended up with a youth team that lacked a goaltender, and the die was cast. Although the 24-year-old has flown a bit under the radar after being drafted 120th overall in ’06 by Dallas, all Bachman has done is win. He was rookie of the year and player of the year in the WCHA for Colorado College and an ECHL all-rookie team member and goalie of the year before putting up solid AHL numbers for the Stars’ farm team in Austin.
Although Bachman isn’t the prototypical NHL netminder -- in other words, tall and agile -- he has impressed folks in the Stars organization with his technical aptitude.
“What he does so well is that he reads the play very well,” goaltending coach Mike Valley told ESPN.com this week. “There’s no wasted movement. He’s quietly good. There’s not much flash to him. He’s just very calm.”
Well, most of the time.
Bachman acknowledged that it’s taken some getting used to suiting up for NHL games like last week when he found himself stretching beside future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur before a game that marked Bachman’s first NHL loss.
Still, with each passing game and victory, Bachman said his confidence and the team’s confidence in him grows.
“It’s been a bit crazy. It’s all happened very quickly,” Bachman said.
Bachman took the loss against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, but his record remains a solid 4-2. And with Lehtonen not expected back until into the new year, the youngster looks to shoulder an even greater load in unexpected circumstances.
3. Wings are looking good
One of the games of the week if not the entire month saw the Detroit Red Wings visit the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night, with the Canucks topping Detroit by a 4-2 count. The game featured two of the hottest teams in the NHL, both of whom have put behind them sluggish starts to assume what most see as perennial positions as Western Conference powers and Stanley Cup contenders. It seems that whenever the Red Wings hit a bit of a lull, as they did earlier this campaign when their offense was struggling, people predict that the Wings’ run of greatness is about to end. Yet every season the Wings seem to plow through those rough patches as only the elite teams know how to do. Still, even head coach Mike Babcock has been pleasantly surprised by a team that had to fill the void created by the retirement of Brian Rafalski.
“I just think we’re a better team than I anticipated going in [to the season],” Babcock told ESPN.com this week.
The Wings have turned out to be deeper and more physical and have seen more growth out of some players than had been expected, Babcock said.
Valtteri Filppula is one of those growth players up front, as he has 26 points in 32 games. His 10 goals are tied for second on the team.
Johan Franzen, enjoying a nice bounce-back season after being waylaid by injury last season, leads the team with 14 goals, another pleasant surprise.
Dan Cleary has shaken off a slow start, and playing with Darren Helm on the team’s third line has made the Wings more difficult to defend.
Justin Abdelkader has given some oomph to the team’s fourth line, Babcock noted.
The Red Wings have been especially impressive at home, where they have won 10 straight.
“We’ve been more assertive at home and come out with more jump,” he said.
The Wings lead all NHL teams with 67 goals at home in just 16 home dates, a little more than four per game.
Does this mean Babcock is sitting with his feet up smoking a big stogie down in the basement at Joe Louis Arena waiting until the puck drops on what will be the Wings’ 21st straight trip to the postseason?
“Look at our division,” he said. “It’s tight, tight, tight.”
As of Thursday, three of the five Central Division squads, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, were firmly entrenched in the playoff grid, with Nashville one point out.
4. Sabres not looking sharp
The Buffalo Sabres are like Kevin Bacon in “Animal House” repeating the mantra: “Remain calm, all is well” while all around, chaos reigns.
Well, here’s a little reality if you’re the ninth-place Sabres.
As the NHL heads toward the Christmas break, the Sabres have played the fewest road games of any team in the league, 13, compared to 20 at home. They have managed the fewest goals on the road, just 28, and that means they’re going to play more road games in the second half of the season. It also means scoring just a hair over two goals per game away from Buffalo won’t get the job done. Of the eight lowest-scoring road teams so far this season, only two occupy playoff positions: San Jose and St. Louis. The others include bottom feeders Columbus and Anaheim and the mightily struggling Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings. And, of course, the disappointing Sabres.
5. Canes brighten up the holidays
On Thursday, former Carolina Hurricane Shane Willis and members of the Canes' staff were expected to travel to Fort Bragg, N.C., with a load of Christmas presents for a local family whose house was broken into and their presents stolen. The donations by the Hurricanes were significant on a couple of fronts, not the least of which was the good cheer brought to the family of SSG Patrick Jacobson, who had sold his truck to help pay for Christmas presents for his family before his deployment to Afghanistan early in 2012. It was also significant as it represented the first coordinated efforts of the newly formed Carolina Hurricanes alumni association. With the help of longtime Hurricanes staffers Mike Sundheim and Kyle Hanlin, local alumni who number about a dozen hope to become a much more visible entity in the community and at Canes events moving forward.
The group’s movement from guys getting together for some shinny to working with the team to buttressing the team’s standing in the community is an important nod to the team’s history in Raleigh.
The alumni group’s evolution “is of the upmost importance,” former defenseman Aaron Ward told ESPN.com.
Ward has developed into a top-notch national hockey analyst in Canada but makes his home in the Raleigh area. He was a key figure in the Christmas gift event and represents an important touchstone to the Canes' humbling beginnings and first brushes with success.
“It’s one of those things you learn. Your job’s not done when you decide to retire,” Ward said.
Willis played 141 regular-season games for the Canes in the late-1990s, married a local girl and is now the youth and amateur hockey coordinator for the team.
He said young fans will relate to the Jeff Skinners and Eric Staals, but there are older fans, parents and grandparents, perhaps, who will relate to alumni such as former captain Rod Brind’Amour, Hall of Famer Ron Francis and defenseman Glen Wesley, all of whom work for the team and make their homes in the area.
“It’s a great mesh of all the fans coming in,” he said.