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Life on the Road - Winnipeg Jets

Even the team doctors face some unexpected challenges.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Winnipeg Jets, you can rest assured that you’re not the only one. My very unscientific recollections involve a great deal of Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons, and very few games with a surpassing amount of excitement.

Those recollections, however, are beginning to be challenged by an electric forward core that’s driven by the NHL’s fourth leading point scorer and second leading goal scorer. Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and their Winnipeg teammates are making noise, and if you’re not on the receiving end, it’s easy to perceive it harmoniously.

I watched the Jets one month ago on their November 3rd trip to Washington. My pregame research betrayed me upon my discovery from the game notes that the Jets do, indeed, technically have a St. Louis native on the roster. Adam Lowry’s father Dave was a mostly-forgettable depth forward, but he played over a thousand NHL games. A plurality of those were with the Blues and he was in St. Louis when Adam was born, so Adam gets to be in the club.

Winnipeg’s forward talent, however, goes beyond grinders and depth guys. In addition to Scheifele and Laine, who was selected second overall this past summer, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor are also first round picks of the Jets. Marko Dano was picked 27th overall in 2013, and relative greybeard Blake Wheeler, the team captain, was a top five pick in 2004. Exciting hockey has arrived in Winnipeg, and it was clear from the puck drop that Washington would struggle to contain them.

In order to keep that young talent fresh and operating at their highest skill, the Jets have a fairly rigorous maintenance program that’s overseen by Dr. Craig Slaunwhite. As the Jets director of fitness, his focus is on helping veterans deal with the struggles of a long season and on helping the young players who are key to the Jets success get on the path toward good habits. He’s also, to use one of my favorite expressions, built like a brick shithouse, and if he had been introduced to me as a defenseman rather than a doctor, I wouldn’t have doubted it for a second.

“We have a decent basis of where we are in terms of rest and recovery, but it’s always an ongoing process,” said Dr. Slaunwhite. “We spent a lot of time toward the end of last year to really hone in how we approach things. Now [that] we [have] that information, we’re applying it this year, so we’re in the application phase.”

The Capitals play in the NHL’s Metropolitan division. From DC, the furthest away divisional opponent is the Columbus Blue Jackets at 421 road miles or about an 80-minute flight. The Jets are 1100 miles from Denver and 1300 miles from Dallas. In fact, their closest divisional opponent is the Minnesota Wild. Minneapolis is a driving distance of 457 miles from Winnipeg, or 36 miles longer than Washington’s longest divisional trip.

That increased travel time can affect readiness in many ways. One that was most surprising to me was the way Dr. Slaunwhite indicated it put pressure on their ability to have full practices.

“Our travel dictates our rest and recovery process, so we end up maybe not having the luxury of getting the amount of quality sleeps that a team like Washington might have. They have the ability to have more traditional practices,” he said. “Everything is a balance. We feel like, ‘yeah we need practices, we need guys to maintain their skill and chemistry,’ but at the end of the day we need them to be as fresh and as prepared as possible for the games.”

That plan seemed to be effective in this game, as the quick strike Jets offense made up for some deficiencies on the back end. Paul Postma, Julian Melchiori, and Ben Chiarot are all somewhat fringe, bottom pairing defensemen. Tobias Enstrom’s speed and skating game is starting to slow as he ages and his legs get heavier, and Dustin Byfuglien is a force in the offensive zone but an occasional ghost in his own end. This game took place before Jacob Trouba’s contract stalemate was broken and after Tyler Myers went down with an injury, and the resulting gap was clearly substantial.

The Jets fell into a 3-0 hole before fighting their way to a tie. The line of Ehlers, Wheeler, and Scheifele was a constant threat and ran a relentless cycle that generated quality chances. Patrik Laine looked to be a match for Alex Ovechkin as a threat on the power play, though the Jets seemed to set up for point shots with bizarre frequency, as opposed to taking advantage of Laine’s lightning quick wrists.

Lowry’s second goal of the season let the St. Louis pride shine through, and Dano, making his season debut after being recalled from the AHL, found a soft area in the slot and wired home the tying goal with less than nine minutes to play in the third.

This allowed the Jets to come away with a point, though their defensive zone play would ultimately prevent them from clinching the second. Alex Ovechkin’s relentless assault from the left dot has been covered in great detail in this column and countless other places, but the Jets managed not to get the memo.

A one timer on an overtime power play sent the Jets to the locker room with an OTL, and then off on a brutal jaunt that sent them through Detroit, New York, Winnipeg, Phoenix, and Denver within the span of a week. By remaining competitive, the Winnipeg Jets are truly facing down the roughest challenges of the life of NHL travel.