It’s been better days for the Winnipeg Jets as panic from a four-game losing skid is beginning to surface in the locker room. They are looking to reverse that when they take on the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday night at the MTS Centre.
The Jets (19-22-5) are coming off losses to Ottawa, Boston, Pittsburgh and most recently, Tampa Bay Tuesday night where they had arguably their worst performance in a 4-2 loss.
The Blue Jackets (20-20-4) have had a similar season to that of the Jets, sitting at .500 on the year but have had some success of late, winning their last two games including a 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Friday night.
With that, here are five things to keep an eye on in tonight’s game:
Tonight marks the second and final time these two teams will square off this season. Winnipeg took the first game, winning 3-2 back on Dec. 16.
Evander Kane, who won’t be in the lineup Saturday in order to nurse an injured hand, scored the game winner. It was the first game back for Kane after he had missed six contests with a lower body injury. Al Montoya got the start for the Jets, making 22 saves in the win.
With a win, the Jets can capture the season series, something I’m sure Claude Noel would like to do against his former club. It may be a small victory, but any victory at this point for Winnipeg is a big one.
Shaking things up
Winnipeg will have a different look up front when they take the ice Saturday. Head Coach Claude Noel has decided to move Dustin Byfuglien from the blue line to play alongside Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd on the team’s top line.
With Kane out, rookie Eric O’Dell will get his shot on the second line with Mark Scheifele and Michael Frolik. Blake Wheeler has been moved down to the third line with Devin Setoguchi and Olli Jokinen.
“I don’t just throw things at the wall to see what sticks,” Noel said about the moves following Saturday’s morning skate. “I’m trying to calculate this thing to see what works best. I don’t think we ever go in to a situation you’re coaching and not think things out.”
So what does the Jets’ bench boss hope to get from the shuffle?
“I just like to see some enthusiasm,” Noel said. “Changes are one thing but you’ve got to put your work boots on. I’d like to see some enthusiasm and some tenacity in the way we play. That’s what we want to see. Everything else aside for me, it’s winning battles and the details in the game.”
Buff staying balanced
It’s no secret that if given the choice where to play, that Byfuglien would choose to stay on defence. The big man said so much following the skate Saturday.
“It is what it is,” said Byfuglien about the reassignment. “I’m part of a team. It’s a team game. It’s not ideal to what I want to be doing but whatever I can do to help this team right now I’ll do it.”
Byfuglien has been the topic of heavy criticism of late for his defensive play. Over the last two games the big man is a minus-5, contributing first hand to a number of costly turnovers.
The move, however, isn’t new. Byfuglien was pushed up front during a short stint last season but by the end of that game, was back on the blue line. This time, however, there’s been more preparation as he’s been sporting a forward jersey all this week at practice.
“Last year was pretty much just right in to the game,” Noel said. “He’s had a couple of days of practice with his line-mates. It’s a lot different playing forward and defence.
“I think we have to be patient in our assessment of things. When you’re a defenseman, your whole game’s in front of you, you’re watching the whole game. When you’re up front you’re in the middle and it’s a way different game but I think he can be an effective player for us.”
Noel added that Byfuglien won’t be limited to just playing forward as he’ll take his usual spot on the point during the power play.
A fair shot
Eric O’Dell will finally get his shot to prove what he can do. The St. John’s IceCaps’ standout is without a point in six games with the Jets this season, but has been limited in ice time playing with the team’s fourth line. Expect O’Dell to get a taste of more meaningful minutes as he slots in at wing on the second line.
O’Dell leads the IceCaps with 17 goals and 12 assists in 28 games. But that’s not to say the expectations will be piling up.
“I think you got to keep things in perspective,” Noel said. “First of all, he’s a natural centre that’s played centre. He hasn’t really played wing. He’s an offensive player that’s had some offensive production in the American League and it was the same in Junior.
“We’ll see how it goes with Eric and we’ll just put him in a situation where he can play with smart players. He’s played in a situation where he’s been more of a checking type player so I think it’s in all fairness to him and with Mark Scheifele it’s potentially a good fit. We’ll see how it goes.”
Horton back in action
A guy Jets fans haven’t seen much from this season but will get their first look tonight is Blue Jackets’ forward, Nathan Horton. Horton missed the first 40 games of the season following shoulder surgery. The former Boston Bruin signed a seven-year, $37.1-million contract in the off season.
“He’s a good player,” Noel said. “He certainly gives them more depth up front and a guy that can create some offence.”
Horton plays a tough game but his numbers against Winnipeg are anything but scary. Horton has just two goals and is a dismal minus-6 in six career games against the Jets. The power forward has a goal and an assist and is a plus-1, averaging close to 17 minutes in four games since coming back from injury.
Prediction: 3-2 Jets
There’s no room for excuses for the Jets in this game. The Blue Jackets are coming off a match less than 24 hours ago and should be fatigued come puck drop. It also bodes well for Winnipeg if Sergei Bobrovsky gets the night off. Bobrovsky recorded a 36-save shutout Friday and will most likely get the rest in net tonight. Jets, like always, make it a close one but end up on the right side.