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June 20, 2024
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Winnipeg. Ready For Takeoff. – Annenberg Media

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“The Silver Shield” is a column by Kasey Kazliner about the National Hockey League.

Winnipeg is soaring

Last season, the Winnipeg Jets made the playoffs as a Wild Card, but finished short of their destination after they came crashing down against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Golden Knights. This season — in a three-legged race for the Central along with the Avalanche and Stars — the Jets’ stout goaltending and elite defense has given them the edge.

Winnipeg (29-10-4) currently leads the Western Conference with 62 points and is 9-1-0 in its last 10 contests. With a deep playoff run in sight, netminder Connor Hellebuyck’s value has been immeasurable as the Jets reach these sky-high heights. Hellebuyck hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a game since mid-December, and his .925 save percentage and 2.19 goals against average have put him right in the thick of the Vezina Trophy conversation.

With help from solid defensemen such as Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk and Brenden Dillon, Hellebuyck has proven to be the Jets’ resilient and reliable leader for yet another season.

The Pierre-Luc Dubois trade from last summer has given the Jets new life in the form of center Gabriel Vilardi. At just 24 years old, Vilardi is on pace to have the best season of his career if he can stay healthy. Along with left wing Kyle Connor, Vilardi missed significant time with injury, but with both back in the lineup, the Jets’ depth has been bolstered from top to bottom. Connor returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing over a month of action and added to his team-leading goal total, now at 18.

Before getting injured against the Blackhawks last Thursday, center Mark Scheifele was on a tear. Scheifele leads the Jets with 41 points and must be dying to get back on the ice in the wake of Connor’s return. Regardless, the Jets’ first line has been elite despite his absence.

Left wing Nikolaj Ehlers’ craftiness and swift stickhandling has also been vital for Winnipeg. Although missing time in 2022-23 was disappointing, Ehlers’ 33 points and +24 plus/minus shows his effectiveness when creating offensive chances.

While the Jets haven’t been the flashiest team or the biggest scoring force, they’ve proven to be elite in the defensive zone, which has been the catalyst for their success.

Winnipeg only leads the Central Division by one point, so every game will be crucial and limiting injuries will be the biggest test.

The Jets’ next task will be the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.

The Oilers’ resurgence

Earlier this season, Edmonton was in an oil crisis. The Oilers had only won two of their first 12 games with little hope in sight. Since then, however — with the exception of a pair of three-game losing streaks in mid-November and mid-December — Edmonton has been perfect. The Oilers have won 11 straight and stand just one point back of the Los Angeles Kings for third in the Pacific.

Center Connor McDavid has returned to looking like his usual self after starting the season injured. The three-time Hart Trophy winner has been among the league’s best, with 58 points on the season thus far.

The star center has put the team on his back with an 11-game point streak and has shown that a sense of urgency was necessary to turn the Oilers (24-15-1) from a disappointment into a contender. As captain, he has not only been a leader statistically, but also as a role model with his elite skating and stickhandling skills.

McDavid isn’t the only contributor, though. The Oilers have already had four players surpass 40 points on the season; they are stacked offensively, especially on the first two lines.

Leon Draisaitl started the season off slow before completely turning it around. The second-line center is coming off the best season of his career, and while he likely won’t match his numbers from 2022-23, his offensive consistency has contributed to Edmonton’s forward depth immensely.

Like Draisaitl, left wing Zach Hyman is also coming off his best season and isn’t showing any sign of regressing. Since joining the Oilers from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hyman has only improved. He currently leads Edmonton in goals with 26, including three hat tricks, and has been extremely reliable in the slot or next to the net, deflecting in his teammates’ shots.

Defenseman Evan Bouchard is offensive-minded and stands just one point away from matching his career-high of 43 points during the 2021-22 season. At 24 years old, Bouchard hasn’t even reached his peak yet, and he has displayed defensive responsibility as well as offensive awareness in all three zones.

The Oilers have been the comeback story of the season so far considering how bad they were back in October. While it’ll be tough to catch the Vancouver Canucks, who are running away with the Pacific title, don’t count the Oilers out to make a deep run.

Edmonton will look to extend its win streak to 12 games against the Seattle Kraken tonight at 6 p.m.

Detroit Red Wings: a dark-horse playoff team

The city of Detroit might be focused on the Lions right now, but its hockey team isn’t too shabby either.

The Red Wings (23-16-5) currently find themselves in third place in the Atlantic Division and must keep winning to separate themselves from the rest. Although Detroit started red-hot, it slowed down before resurging at the turn of the new year — the Wings have only lost one game in 2024.

The Red Wings may not have a star-studded cast or a consistent goaltending tandem, but they’ve been about as scrappy as can be. If Detroit wants to make the playoffs, though, it must find a way to beat out the experienced Maple Leafs and Lightning, who are creeping up behind them.

From wingers Alex DeBrincat to David Perron, the Red Wings have talent spread out all across the lineup. If their top-six forwards can keep up their offensive production at the rate it’s been, expect Detroit to finish top three in the division.

Detroit will battle the Carolina Hurricanes Friday to try to cover even more ground in the Atlantic.

“The Silver Shield” runs every Thursday.

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