It’s all about finishing the season strong for the Winnipeg Jets, who have three games left on the schedule after being mathematically eliminated from the playoff race late last week.
The Jets (35-34-10) embraced the role of spoiler Saturday night when they knocked off the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-2, drastically ruining their chances at a postseason berth in the Eastern Conference.
Winnipeg now turns its focus to the Minnesota Wild Monday night. The Wild (40-26-12) sit comfortable in the first wild card spot in the West, capable of clinching a playoff berth with a win tonight.
With that, here are five things to keep in mind for tonight’s game:
It’s the fifth and final game of the season between these two teams. The Jets have earned just three of a possible eight points in the season series so far, going 1-2-1 in four games.
If it feels like forever since you’ve seen the Wild play, that’s because it has been. All four games this year against Minnesota were played in the first three months of the season, with the most recent contest happening back on Dec. 27 – a 6-4 win for the Jets at the MTS Centre.
Blake Wheeler scored midway through the third period to break the tie, finishing the game with two goals and the nod for the game’s first star.
Ondrej Pavelec was replaced by Al Montoya after he allowed three goals on six shots. Montoya stood stall the rest of the way, earning the win with just one goal on 23 shots.
A Central point
Tonight won’t just be the last game against the Wild, it will also be the last match against the Central Division and therefore a time to reflect on the past.
The Jets made the jump to the central from the southeast division after moving from the Eastern to the Western Conference in the last off-season.
The Jets are 9-14-5 within their new division, the worst record among the six teams in the group.
“In the Central you've got to play a defensive game first and foremost,” said Jets forward Jim Slater. “You know you’re in for a big game, heavy game, hitting game every night.”
Tonight won’t be the exception with both teams still having a lot to prove this year. The Wild will hope to stay hot heading in to the playoffs while the Jets are still hoping to preserve some pride after missing the post season for the third straight year.
Slater hits 500
Speaking of Slater, the Jets’ gritty forward will play in his 500th career game tonight. It’s an impressive stat in itself, but even more so when you consider it’s been with the same organization for the past nine seasons.
“It’s an unusual thing especially with one organization,” said Maurice of the milestone. “He’s been a guy that’s become so valuable with his work ethic, with being a great teammate, his face off prowess, that’s he’s done something a little bit unusual and I’ve really grown to see the benefit of him.”
For the man himself, it’s not only a moment of pride but also a reflection of how fortunate he’s been in his life. That being said, he still feels he has ways to go.
“My goal before I started even playing in the NHL was to play 15-plus years and I’ve never swayed from that goal,” said Slater.
“I’ve been real fortunate to play as long as I have and look at it as a privilege coming [to the rink] every day and I’m going to continue to go forward and hopefully there are 500 more.”
In 499 games, Slater has 62 goals and 63 assists for 125 points.
Kane returns to lineup
Evander Kane made headlines prior to Saturday’s tilt against the Leafs after Maurice announced his star forward would be a healthy scratch for the game.
It’s unclear still the exact motivation behind Maurice’s decision to sit Kane but one would not have to look far to seek out a plausible answer. The 22-year-old has struggled this season, scoring just 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 60 games.
“I was obviously disappointed but that was [the coach’s] decision and that was it,” said Kane after Monday's morning skate.
Asked whether there was a particular message he wanted to take out of the decision, Kane remained relatively hush on the subject.
“I don’t know what message you’re looking for me to say,” he said.
Kane will make his return to the lineup tonight, most likely on the left wing but a lineup has yet to be determined.
Hopefully his actions on the ice will speak louder than his words off it.
There will be a couple fresh faces in the Jets lineup tonight. St. John’s IceCaps standout Michael Hutchinson will start between the pipes in favour of No. 1 Ondrej Pavelec.
Hutchinson makes his NHL debut after playing most of the season with the Jets' American Hockey League affiliate. The 24-year-old netminder has played in 22 games with the IceCaps this season, registering a 15-5-1 record with a 2.33 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage.
A new rule now by Jets PR omits any goalie to talk on game day but that didn’t stop Maurice from sharing his goalie’s excitement.
“He’s had the exact same smile on his face that he’s had every day when he walks in the room,” Maurice said about Hutchinson.
Carl Klingberg will also make his season-debut with the Jets tonight. Klingberg was drafted in the second round (34th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
In seven career games played with the Thrashers/Jets organization, the 23-year-old is a minus-1 with seven shots and four penalty minutes.