The Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers get set to duke it out Friday night at the MTS Centre.
Winnipeg (15-16-5) is coming off a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the league’s worst-ranked Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. It was just the latest of what’s been a difficult week. The Jets have lost four of their last five games, securing their basement position in the NHL's Central Division.
Florida (14-17-5) has been one of the hottest teams in the East of late. The Panthers have won five straight with their most recent win coming last night in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.
With that, here are five things to watch for in tonight’s game:
Flash of the past
There will be no need for a feeling-out phase to start this game.
These former Southeast Division opponents have played each other 12 times since the Jets return to Winnipeg. The Jets edged out the season series last year, winning three games to two.
Two of those wins came in overtime, and in the two losses, the Jets were outscored 10-4. They split the 2011-2012 season with each earning three wins a piece.
It’s the Jets second meeting of the year against the Panthers. The Jets dropped the first game to Florida, 5-2, earlier this month. Four Panthers’ players had multi-point games and goalie Tim Thomas made 29 saves in the win.
No threat in net
What happens when you’re starting goaltender has lost his last five games and your backup has won three straight?
On any other team in the league there would be a goalie controversy on the horizon.
Not the Jets.
Head coach Claude noel said after practice Thursday that Ondrej Pavelec remains the undisputed No.1 guy, noting that Al Montoya has been a healthy relief when called upon this season.
“I think the thing we have to recognize with both the goalies is we lean on both of them, primarily on the one [Pavelec] and I think we have to recognize that with Ondrej Pavelec, for us he’s our go-to guy,” said Noel, quashing any idea of an existing duel between his net minders.
“You have to find a balance of how to play this and how to juggle this stuff. We know the situation, we know what it is and I think at the end of the day you’ve got to get your go-to guy going.”
Pavelec has allowed four or more goals in three of his last five starts, earning just a single point in a 4-3 shootout loss during that stretch. The 26-year-old Czech is 10-14-4 this season with his last win coming more than two weeks ago; a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers back on Dec. 2.
Bogo is back
Some good news came to the Jets following practice Thursday.
Defenceman Zach Bogosian was given the medical clear after missing the last 15 games with a groin injury. Noel confirmed No. 44 would be in the lineup against the Panthers, pending any last minutes issues.
“I felt good today,” said Bogosian after practice. “I’ve felt good for a couple days now so it’s healing good. It feels good to be back in the mix of things and getting a few practices under my belt was a big thing.”
Bogosian will play alongside a familiar Tobias Enstrom, someone he’s played with quite a bit since entering the NHL.
“I’ve always been comfortable with Toby,” Bogosian said. “I’ve played on and off with him my whole career. He’s a great player. He’s pretty easy to read out there.”
In 21 games this season, Bogosian has one goal and three assists and is a plus-8.
The Panthers are currently riding a season-high, five-game win streak dating back to a 3-2 shootout victory over Detroit on Dec. 10.
Leading the way for Florida is rookie forward Aleksander Barkov. Barkov has a team-high, five points (2g, 3a) in the last five games.
The second overall pick of the 2013 NHL Entry draft has played in 36 games this season for Florida and is 12th in rookie scoring with six goals and nine assists.
Barkov isn’t the only rookie leading his team. Mark Scheifele has been the Jets hottest forward, coming off his first multi-goal game in Tuesday’s loss to Buffalo.
Scheifele and Barkov are tied with 15 points each and have identical goal and assists totals. You could see a line matchup in tonight’s game between these two teams, making for a good battle between two blooming rookies.
A fine line for success
Scheifele’s recent success has been in large part due to the chemistry brewing between the rookie and his line mates, Evander Kane and Michael Frolik. In two games together, the line has connected for four of the Jets five goals.
Created by the absence of Matt Halischuk to injury, the line appears to be a real fit for Kane, who has been juggled all season long, playing with a number of different line combinations with little success.
Scheifele can move the puck and is smart at both ends of the ice. Frolik can create chances from the defensive zone. Together, they make Kane a better player and Noel has to be happy with how things are going.
Winnipeg will need this line to continue to create offence while remaining defensively sound.
Tonight we find out if this line if for real.
Prediction: 3-2 Jets
The Jets understand what’s at stake in Friday’s game.
They just lost to the league’s worst team and the need for a big time rebound is way overdue.
Bogo is back for the Jets, Kane seems to be clicking since his return, and Pavelec is hungry for a win. That should be enough to beat Florida, hot or not.