I feel entirely uncomfortable even noting this development, wary of some quantum observer effect in which quantifying Winnipeg’s success will cause them to go back to the futility with which the franchise has come to be synonymous. The Jets are a delicate baby bird, to be cupped ever-so-gently for fear of crushing them before they learn to fly. But, hell, let’s get this out there: They are playing some damn good hockey.
The red-hot Blackhawks came to town and got rolled last night. Josh Morrissey, Chris Thorburn, Patrik Laine and Nic Petan scored for the Jets in their 4-0 win, with Connor Hellebuyck brickwalling Chicago.
Hellebuyck called the win “perfect.”
“What’s not perfect about it?” said Hellebuyck, who stopped 27 shots for his third career shutout. “Four-nothing, four goals, shutout. I liked it.”
With the win and a 4-0-1 streak, the Jets are 9-7-2, and, holy crap, second in the West. This does not appear to be a fluke. Their possession stats are right in line with their scoring. Their top line has been hockey’s hottest, with 18-year-old rookie Patrik Laine scoring his 12th to extend his lead as the NHL’s top goalscorer, and 23-year-old Mark Scheifle sitting second in goals and tied for first in points after picking up another assist last night.
The second-youngest team in the league, the Jets’ future seems bright, even if this immediate success proves illusory. (Injuries to veterans have required a bunch of call-ups, and the necessities of management mean they’ll regain their spots in the lineup no matter how well their replacements have played.)
“Everyone is stepping in,” Thorburn said. “There’s tough shoes to fill with all the guys we have out of the lineup, but the kids are coming up with energy and they’re excited and we haven’t skipped a beat.”
A big part of that future may be Hellebuyck, their 23-year-old netminder and a prime reason this hot start might be more real than last season’s. A complete unknown until a single breakout year in junior hockey five years ago, Hellbuyck only went in the fifth round of the draft. He then excelled in college and backstopped the U.S. to a bronze at the 2015 Worlds, and has forced his way to the No. 1 job this season.
The defense is still a work in progress, though the recent return of a disgruntled Jacob Trouba and the emergence of rookie Josh Morrissey, who scored his first NHL goal last night (“You dream of that one in the driveway, in the basement, on the outdoor rink,” Morrissey said) should help matters.
There’s a lot of hockey left to be played, and while the Jets now head out on a five-game road trip, their early schedule has been one of the NHL’s toughest. And yet here they are, winning in ways that good young teams often win: with speed and work and contributions up and down the roster, and with a fair share of sloppy play. They score a lot of goals, and they give up a lot of goals, and that equates to some pretty fun hockey. Fans are responding, packing the arena a year after some cracks started to show in the team’s suspect “sellout” streak.
No one’s saying the Jets won’t Jets this up and prove irrelevant again this season. But this is a team with real talent that’s obviously trending in the right direction, and they are winning without being particularly lucky even while having a ton of room for improvement. You want a potential unexpected playoff noisemaker? You’ve got ‘em.