The Winnipeg Jets are in San Jose to take on the Sharks in the first of a three-game swing through California and the second of a five-game road trip that began in Texas with a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars Monday night.
The Jets (32-32-9) are back at .500 on the year, after collecting just two wins in their last 11 games. The Sharks (47-18-9), on the other hand, have been trending upwards, posting a record of 9-2-2 in March, and have already begun selling tickets for the post season.
That being said, anything can happen in the National Hockey League on any given night. So, here are five things to watch for in tonight’s game:
Winner takes all … kind of
With each team earning a win against each other, the season series is still up for grabs.
Winnipeg took the first game of the season back on Nov. 10, earning an exciting 5-4 shoot out victory at home. Andrew Ladd scored a late goal in the third period to tie the game before beating Sharks’ goalie Antti Niemi in the shootout to earn the win.
The Sharks had the last laugh, however, beating the Jets 1-0 in late January. The Jets were outshot 32-20 but stayed close thanks to the stellar play of Jets’ goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who finished with 31 saves in the loss. Joe Pavelski scored the lone goal for the Sharks.
But that’s all history, and tonight is the rubber-match. Will that be enough motivation for the Jets?
The Jets haven’t exactly been road warriors this season, posting a 15-17-3 record away from the MTS Centre. That’s troublesome given they’ll face a Sharks team that rarely loses on home ice.
San Jose leads the Western Conference with 26 wins at home this year (26-5-5). A lot of that success comes from their ability to keep the puck out of the net.
But consider this: the Sharks are third best on the penalty kill at home, clicking at an 87.7 per cent efficiency rate, having allowed just 13 goals on 106 attempts. Often this season, a goal or two has been enough to clinch the win.
It doesn’t help that the Sharks have a number of quality superstars in Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture.
So what’s the secret to stopping a dominant team like that?
“You’re just going to have to work your butts off,” said Jets bench boss Paul Maurice after practice Wednesday.
Welcome back Ladd
It helps that the Jets get a boost to their lineup with the return of captain, Andrew Ladd, who missed Monday’s loss to Dallas to attend the birth of his second child.
“It’s always nice to get back to doing what you love to do,” said Ladd, who raced home Sunday night after finding out his wife was in labour.
“It’s still tough to leave. The first couple days you want to spend as much time as you can with your daughter but I’m excited to get back with the guys and get back to playing hockey.”
It was the first game Ladd had missed as a member of the Jets, snapping a stretch that spanned 233 games. Ladd’s absence was met with some criticism from local media, who believed that given the importance of the game, he should have stayed with the team.
“It was an easy decision for me, really,” noted Ladd. “I felt it was right to stay and make sure my wife was OK, and my daughter was OK, and we don’t have any family in town so I wanted to be there to support them.”
Family trumps everything else, even hockey, said Ladd.
Sounds about right.
Did anyone else cringe when they watched Jets winger Blake Wheeler go full speed into an open gate during Monday’s game?
What was even more shocking was after wincing in pain on the ice and being helped to the dressing room, Wheeler actually made a return to the game only minutes later for the final shift.
“A little scared,” said Wheeler of the freak incident. “But once I got back there [in the dressing room] I knew that nothing serious was wrong. I kind of dodged a bullet there.”
The Jets dodged a bullet too, as Wheeler has been one of the team’s best players for most of the season, and particularly of late, scoring nine points (1g, 8a) in his last eight games.
The question marks around the Jets’ goaltending continues to swirl with nine games left on the schedule.
Maurice made reference to the play of Pavelec and Al Montoya earlier this week, suggesting both needed to be better.
But don’t tell Wheeler that.
“I think our goaltending has been real good,” said Wheeler. “Al has played phenomenal. Either way, we’re pretty lucky with our goaltending situation. If Pav is healthy then great, we obviously welcome Pavs whenever he’s at full health.”
Pavelec took part in his first full practice Wednesday after being out with a lower-body injury for the past five games, but Maurice said Pavelec won’t be given the go-ahead to play until, most likely, Saturday against the L.A. Kings.
Thus, Montoya will make his sixth straight start between the pipes.