The Winnipeg Jets, coming off a 3-0 shellacking by the Montreal Canadiens earlier this week, are looking to rebound Friday night at the MTS Centre against the red-hot St. Louis Blues.
Here are fives things to watch:
The Jets (3-4-0) are entering unfamiliar territory Friday against their new division rival. Since the move from Atlanta in 2011, the Jets have played the Blues (5-0-1) just once, losing 3-2 in a shootout back in February 2012.
But if anyone who knows what it takes to beat a tough, defensive-minded Blues team, it’s Jets forward, Michael Frolik.
Frolik, who was acquired in the offseason from Chicago, faced off against the Blues five times last season as a member of the Blackhawks, finishing with a 3-1-1 record.
"They're a team that plays good defence and they don't give up that many goals," he said. “They play a hard game. We have to be ready for it and make sure that we have good defence too."
St. Louis has allowed two or fewer goals in five of six games this year. As for the Jets, after scoring 10 goals in two games to start the season, they’ve managed to score just seven in their last five.
But for Jets brass, it’s improvement in defensive zone play that’s been top priority this season. St. Louis is ranked third in the league, scoring an average of 3.83 goals per game.
Tonight’s game should act as a measuring stick for head coach Claude Noel and his staff in determining just how well his guys are catching on to the systems they’ve been working on in practice.
Down and out?
Speaking of practice, injuries to forwards Evander Kane, Bryan Little and Jim Slater prevented the trio from hitting the ice Thursday.
The team has listed them as day-to-day, meaning all are possible for tonight’s game.
The uncertainty, however, creates a number of question marks for the Jets roster leading up to game time. Thursday marked the second consecutive practice that Little has sat out. Much was the same for Slater, who began practice on Wednesday only to exit a few drills later.
The Jets biggest concern will be the status of Kane. At practice Wednesday, he collided with forward Anthony Peluso during a defensive zone drill.
The two were jostling for the puck when Kane appeared to slip, resulting in the 235-pound Peluso landing on his right knee.
From the video it doesn’t look good but Noel assured media Thursday the injury was minor. That’s good news for a Jets team that hasn’t fared well without their star.
Winnipeg is 3-4-1 with Kane out of the lineup and has been outscored 16-9 in those games.
Blessing in disguise
If Kane isn’t a go tonight, expect Frolik to get a major increase in ice time.
Noel was asked at practice Wednesday why he hasn’t played Frolik more this year — the last two games Frolik has averaged fewer than 11 minutes of ice time — but had no real answer.
“He’s been a good player for us,” said Noel. “He’s hard not to play right now.
“He’s going to be a guy that’s going to find more ice time just by the way he plays. I’m not ignoring [him]. I see exactly what he’s doing and things will fall in to place for him.”
If Kane is out, those pieces may fall sooner than later.
Where Frolik may be of most value is on the penalty kill. He was a regular for Chicago in that role, playing an integral part in their Stanley Cup run last year.
And despite his lack of ice time he’s managed to chip in offensively too, accounting for two goals and three assists so far this year. If injuries lead to Frolik given more of a role, it could be a blessing in disguise.
Getting wheels back on track
Jets forward Blake Wheeler was publicly criticized for his play this season by Noel following the shutout loss to Montreal.
In seven games this year, the 27-year-old Minnesota product has just two assists and is a minus-1.
But if history is any indication, a match-up against the St. Louis might be what Wheeler needs to get back on track.
The Jets winger had two goals in the 3-2 shootout loss to the Blues two seasons ago. In five career games against St. Louis, Wheeler has scored five goals and added an assist.
You can bet Jets brass, and fans, will hope that that trend continues.
Bringing the blues
Leading the way for the Blues this season is Winnipeg native Alex Steen.
Steen, son of former Winnipeg Jet Thomas Steen, is tops on the Blues with nine points (5G, 4A) in six games. A pretty impressive start for a guy who only scored eight goals in 40 games last year.
So, just how important will it be for Winnipeg to keep Steen from finding the back of the net?
Consider this: the Blues have won the last 11 games where Steen has recorded a goal. The Jets may want to be a little extra diligent when seeing No. 20 on the ice.
Steen isn’t the only member of the Blues from the River City. Forward Ryan Reaves is the son of another prominent local sports hero, former Blue Bomber great Willard Reaves.
Known mainly for his toughness, Reaves leads St. Louis with 29 penalty minutes and has one fight on the year. If things get rough, don’t be surprised if Reaves is in the middle of it.
Prediction: 4-2 Blues
The Jets will face their toughest match of the season against a St. Louis team that has yet to lose in regulation time this season.
It will be difficult to score against a stingy St. Louis defence, especially if Kane is out.
Winnipeg may benefit from the Blues playing last night but fatigue shouldn’t be much of an issue this early on in the season. Blues take this one.