Jets quietly not going away as they close in on first in North Division –

WINNIPEG — At least publicly, the Winnipeg Jets resisted the urge to make a profound declaration.

There was no bulletin-board material to supply.

No talk of how they measure up and no subtle messages sent.

To them, this was simply another day at the office against a team they have a great deal of respect for.

Sure, a tidy 5-2 victory Thursday over the Toronto Maple Leafs was a welcome way to wrap up a five-game trip (where the Jets went 4-1), concluding a gruelling stretch of 17 of 22 games played on the road.

But before jumping on a plane to prepare for a Saturday night game against the Edmonton Oilers, the Jets were all business and weren’t about to be drawn into a discussion about the importance of trying to chase down the Maple Leafs for top spot in the North Division standings.

Even after pulling within three points of them, with three more head-to-head games coming next week.

Sure, first place is something to strive for, but the Jets have greater goals in mind, even if they’re not currently shouting them from the rooftops.

The final 12 games of the regular season are about one thing — and one thing only — for the Jets.

“It’s just about doing what we can,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who scored a goal and had two assists Thursday to move to 52 points in 44 games this season. “We can’t control how they’re doing against other teams, but obviously when we’re playing against them we want to get a win.

“It’s just a matter of playing the right way — just focusing game by game and not worrying about anything else but our game. We’ve really done a good job of that as we’ve played.”

Because the Jets and Maple Leafs met in the second game of the season, then went six weeks before meeting again, there was genuine curiosity in how these teams were going to fare against one another and how they might stack up once the Stanley Cup playoffs arrived.

What matchups would each respective team try to exploit and what role would depth play?

To this point, the season series has proven to be highly entertaining, an interesting combination of both high- and low-scoring affairs, mixed with a blend of high-event and tight-checking hockey.

The stars have taken turns owning the marquee, the latest turn taken by Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers on the offensive front for the Jets.

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck didn’t have to be other-worldly this time around, but he was his steady, confident self, supplying a bounceback effort after a rare suspect showing on Monday against the Ottawa Senators.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when trying to size up the Jets and Maple Leafs is that it’s too early to draw too many concrete conclusions, since both clubs are still in search of their optimal lineups.

How can that be the case after seven meetings have already taken place?

Well, that’s because the most important meetings are still to come for two franchises that have plenty to prove once the playoffs arrive.

The Jets are 3-2-2 in the season series, while the Maple Leafs sport a 4-3 record.

Eight points in the piggy bank a piece.

Even steven.

In a normal 82-game season, the final 12 games would be all about finding a way to try and peak for the playoffs, not figure out which line combinations and defence pairings will start the opening game of the pursuit for the Stanley Cup.

But there is nothing normal about this condensed campaign in the midst of a pandemic.

Even the top teams in the North are still working in some of their top prospects — or waiting for trade-deadline acquisitions to make their presence felt.

“Sometimes in the last four or five games of the season you don’t learn much. But this is going to be a positioning stretch,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “There’s going to be something on the line in these games, so we think we’re going to get a real good push from all the opponents and then we want to push real hard, too.

“We’ve done a pretty good job this year of kind of learning from our mistakes, learning from things that didn’t work well for us the next night. We’ve been able to address those pretty good in games. We’re all going to size each other up here in that next week and then make the adjustments that we think we’re going to need when we see each other (again).”

The Jets played the past five games without captain Blake Wheeler, who was diagnosed with a concussion after taking an elbow from Senators forward Brady Tkachuk.

Wheeler has taken strides and been back on the ice in Winnipeg during the past week, and while he hasn’t been ruled out for Saturday’s game yet, he’s more likely to return at some point during the three-game set with the Maple Leafs, which begins Wednesday.

One of the interesting developments during the past four periods saw Pierre-Luc Dubois move to the wing to fill in for Wheeler, alongside Scheifele and Kyle Connor.

Dubois is up to 29 games with the Jets, and while his play has been thoroughly dissected, there are signs that he’s settling into a rhythm.

It’s not just about the points he’s going to produce, it’s about how his brute strength and skill set make the Jets more difficult to play against when the games matter most.

Although Dubois was brought in to fill a long-term need down the middle, he’s 22 years old and, given the depth the Jets have at centre, his greater immediate impact might come while playing on the wall.

Having an experienced pivot like Paul Stastny available to slide into the centre spot while experimenting with Dubois on the wing is a luxury most teams in the North Division simply don’t have at their disposal.

After the Jets didn’t swing a deal for a high-profile blue-liner to jump right into the top-four, one of the topics of conversation in the market surrounded top prospect Ville Heinola and when he might get back into the lineup.

Maurice inserted Heinola on Thursday for his first game action of any kind in roughly a month, and while he made it clear he wasn’t about to put too much stock into the results, there were enough encouraging signs.

In just under 13 minutes of ice time, mostly alongside Dylan DeMelo, Heinola put his best traits on display, making some smart, aggressive reads while moving the puck efficiently and battling defensively.

This wasn’t a referendum on whether or not Heinola is ready or requires more time in the minors, but he’s one of the internal solutions available and he’s going to see some additional action during this stretch of eight consecutive games against teams currently holding down a playoff position.

“As I said before, I wasn’t going to assess his game one way or the other,” said Maurice. “So get in, get through it. Have enough presence to play your game simply. There’s nothing glaring there, which is really good. So he did what he needed to do. We know he can get through a game. We’ll have opportunities as we go forward here to get him to play more. But it was a good game for him.”

Jordie Benn, brought in from the Vancouver Canucks to bolster the defensive depth, is going to get some work down the stretch as well. Plus, Logan Stanley isn’t going to sit out for long, even if Maurice hinted at a platoon situation earlier this week.

The internal competition is on.

Three of the next six games for the Jets will come against the Oilers, the lone team in the North the Jets don’t have a winning record against (2-4).

The inability to find an answer for the Oilers dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl has been a big factor in the games played to this point — but that challenge isn’t limited to the Jets.

While there’s been plenty of debate about what the value of home-ice advantage will actually be this spring, the results of these next six games against the Oilers and Maple Leafs will go a long way toward determining how things get sorted out at the top of the standings.

“From the start of the regular season, we’ve found what our identity is and we’re trying to solidify that, so that when the playoffs come around, we’re peaking at the right time,” said Stastny. “You’re going to have games where you have bad games and then we have good games and we know what the recipe for success is. For us, it’s about not being stubborn, not being selfish and buying into that system.

“When we do that as a team and as a collective group, we play well in that 200-foot game, not just offensively. It starts from our defensive zone, but that’s as a collective group of five guys. When we play the right way, we know what we’re capable of and we’re excited about that.”

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