Jets visit Avs looking for steadier play
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The Winnipeg Jets are securely in first place the Central Division and will enter Wednesday with three games at hand over second-place Nashville. It is a scenario Winnipeg would have taken at the start of the season, but it's not all rosy for the Jets.
They have lost five of their last seven games and are sputtering as the season approaches the fourth rail of the schedule.
"We are concerned," Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said after a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa on Saturday. "Going into (Saturday), it was the first five-game block of the season where we're under .500 at 2-3. So yeah, you're concerned."
The glass-half-full view is the Jets are still in first place and have chance to correct things. They can start when they play at the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night. It's the second time in a week the two are meeting, after the Avalanche won at Winnipeg, 4-1, on Thursday night.
Wednesday will be Winnipeg's first game since Saturday, which gave the club time to try to iron out its problems. The Jets (36-19-4, 76 points) finished strong last season and carried that momentum to the playoffs and reached the Western Conference finals.
But there are concerning differences this season compared to last year. At this point in 2017-18, Winnipeg had 79 points, had won five of seven and was stingier on defense. The Jets have allowed 15 more goals than at this point last year.
Also troublesome is the prolonged scoring slump of dynamic forward Patrik Laine. He escaped a sophomore slump last year with 44 goals, but his third year has been more of a struggle. Laine has 25 goals this season but hasn't scored one since Jan. 13, a drought of 14 games. Since a stunning five-goal game on Nov. 24 against St. Louis, he has six tallies total.
Laine spoke to the media for the first time in three weeks Tuesday morning and said he feels good overall.
"I think it's getting better. Obviously I'm not scoring, but overall it's OK," he said. "Creating chances, playing OK defense. Not allowing that many goals anymore, as a line. So that's obviously good. There's always room to improve. But I think it's decent right now."
Laine might find scoring a little harder to do against a Colorado team that has played better on defense lately. The Avalanche (24-24-11, 59 points) have lost nine of their last 11 but are coming off a 3-0 win against Vegas on Monday. It was the second time in three games they held an opponent to one or fewer goals.
Better play by goaltender Semyon Varlamov has helped. He has started seven straight games and is coming off his second shutout of the season and 25th of his career.
"Our defensive-zone structure was a lot better the last couple of games," Varlamov said after Monday's win. "Like I said, we make a couple changes like with the coaching stuff and it works. It's nice to see the guys doing a great job."
Colorado has been in a months-long slump but it is still within close distance of a wild-card spot. The Avalanche have 23 games left, and a strong finish would give them consecutive playoff appearance for the first time in 13 years.
"This team never gives up," Varlamov said. "We're going to battle to the end. We just need to get on a winning streak and kind of help ourselves."
The Jets will be without defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who will miss Winnipeg's three-game road trip due to a lower-body injury.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 19, 2019