Kulfan: Jets soar beyond expections

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The surprise of this NHL season thus far?

That's easy, the Winnipeg Jets, the small Canadian market that's even easy to overlook if you live in Canada.

The Jets have overcome numerous key injuries and a grueling recent schedule to win five consecutive games heading into the break and stand two points (62-60) behind Chicago and St. Louis in the Central Division.

Believe it — nobody saw this coming.

"There are areas we can get better at. I don't think anybody's overly excited," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "I don't think we've been lucky and I think we can get better."

Winnipeg is also 6-0-1 over its last seven games, a stretch that saw the Jets play seven games in 11 days including five road games (and the two home games were not consecutive).

"The schedule, going across the country about a hundred different times, that takes it out of you, wears you out mentally and physically," Jets forward Blake Wheeler said. "This (the break) is going to be a great chance for everybody to recharge.

"I'm happy I didn't know what that stretch was going to look like before. If I'd have known that, it would have taken a little bit out of you mentally. We just kind of went through it, got through it day-by-day and shoot, to come out of it the way we have, that definitely goes a long way. We're thrilled with that."

As usual in these types of stories, there's an unsung hot goalie involved. Michael Hutchinson is 14-4-2 with a 1.90 GAA and .935 save percentage.

"How can you not be just enamored with the way he's played," Maurice said.

Awful Sabres

Then, there's the Buffalo Sabres.

The team everyone felt would be the team to land No. 1 draft choice Connor McDavid certainly is in position to do that.

The Sabres are last, 30th in the standings, after losing 14 of their last 16 games (1-14-1) and not being close in many of them.

How bad have the Sabres been?

They've currently lost 11 consecutive games, the longest losing streak in franchise history. They are last in the NHL in goals per game (1.77), goals allowed (3.53), power play (9.9 percent), penalty kill (73.8 percent), goal differential (minus-78), road victories (four), shots taken per game (23.1), shots allowed (35.1) and faceoff percentage (45.3).

There's more.

They have the most short-handed goals allowed (eight), most times shut out (eight), most losses by three goals or more (19), most times trailing after one period (22, tied with Philadelphia) and the most goals allowed in the second (60) and third periods (64).

With a little over two months left in the season, it's scary to think how bad it can get in Buffalo.

Tanking for McDavid

As expected McDavid (Erie, OHL) and Jack Eichel (Boston University), two dynamic franchise-changing type players, remain the top-two draft prospects in the midseason Central Scouting Bureau rankings.

McDavid has missed time with a broken hand but has a mind-boggling 60 points in 23 games with Erie. At the world junior championships, McDavid led Canada to the gold medal with a 11 points after a slow start in the tournament.

"In the end, he got untracked and was there for Canada when he was needed most," said Kyle Woodlief, publisher and chief scout for Red Line Report, the NHL draft bible.

Eichel will be the No. 2 pick, but a player who is gaining attention is Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin, who was outstanding at world juniors.

"Noah Hanifin was rock steady on the blue line and impressive all over the ice," Woodlief said. "He has a tough road to rise above No. 3 overall, but he's taking a great shot at it."