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Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Winnipeg Jets on the road to recovery

By Pierre LeBrun

Two road games don’t make a season but for the Winnipeg Jets, this week’s performance in Boston and Washington carries extra meaning.

We’re talking about a team that last season was so hard to beat at home in front of their boisterous fans, going 23-13-5. But talk about night and day, once they left the MTS Centre, they were just 14-22-5 on the road -- 27th in the NHL -- a major reason they failed to make the playoffs.

According the research done by Dirk Hoag on his blog Jan. 13, the Jets as expected will travel the most in the Eastern Conference this season at 27,431 miles, which is also eighth overall in the NHL. So it's pretty obvious how important a decent road record will be.

It was talked about in exit meetings and in preseason chats. The Jets needed to elevate their play on the road in order to have any chance at making the postseason.

A hard-fought, 2-1 shootout loss in Boston on Monday and an impressive 4-2 win in Washington on Tuesday night is just what the Jets needed to it going this season.

"There’s been so much emphasis on it," Jets head coach Claude Noel told ESPN.com Wednesday. "What really pleases me is that our players obviously gave it some thought over the summer. We talked about it at the end of the year, we talked about it before, and I can see with the way they’re playing they’re way more conscientious of how we play. A lot of players told me after we came back [after the lockout] when I asked them for their thoughts on our road play, some of them thought it was between the ears. Which was good because to me that’s a focus factor, a managing details factor, and getting prepared. So it’s something that’s attainable."

It was a shootout loss but the single point earned in Boston on Monday set the tone.

"The Boston game, we knew it would be a heavy game with a hard opponent," said Noel. "We look at their lineup, it’s quite imposing. I thought the players took a big step there and made a statement to each other about how they were going to play there. If we were going to make changes [on how they play on the road], it had to start right there. And I thought the Boston game was real good game from an effort and checking level. That team checks you into the ground. If you’re not prepared, they can hurt you. So I was really happy."

Back-to-back games, 3 games in four nights, no problem. Washington’s home opener? No problem, either. A 4-2 win Tuesday in a game that the Jets handled from start to finish.

"So these are all good signs, we just have to keep it going," Noel said.

Blue-liner Tobias Enstrom is off to a flying start with four assists in three games while averaging 26:36 minutes a game. He’s been effective at both ends of the ice.

"Enstrom’s been real good," said Noel. "We had a good conversation with him at the end of the year. He’s a guy that has to be comfortable with where he is. There was a lot of new stuff last year. I think his game was OK last year, but I thought he had more to give. He’s a passionate, quiet player. He has a real drive to win. We’re starting to see more of that 'A' game that we saw last year but didn’t see enough."

Dustin Byfuglien completes Winnipeg’s top defense pairing with Enstrom and he’s also been terrific so far, leading the team with 27:09 minutes per game adding three points (1-2) in three games.

"He’s been consistent. Buff has that gunslinger game, and he’s keeping it under wraps," said Noel. "And he has to. If it gets outside the lines, you don’t know where you’re going. It can be both great and bad. He’s been more in control. And those two guys have taken a heavy load."

The Jets are missing top-four blue-liner Zach Bogosian, who is recovering from wrist surgery. Noel said mid-February was the earliest Bogosian would be back. That puts more pressure on the Enstrom-Byfuglien pairing to log big minutes at the top; Mark Stuart has pushed up from his normal No. 5 role and is playing with Ron Hainsey on the second pairing, leaving Grant Clitsome and rookie Paul Postma as the third pair. Bogosian’s absence is significant and will really put stress on this group over the next month. This wasn’t a group that was overly deep on defense to begin with.

Which, as always, puts pressure on the last line of defense. Ondrej Pavelec is sporting a .929 save percentage in three starts and was huge in Boston and Washington.

"The play of Pavelec, he’s been getting better every game," said Noel. "He was good in Boston and was superb last night in Washington. He was in really good position last night. [Goalie coach] Wade Flaherty has done a real good job with him."