The Winnipeg Jets have swapped winter coats for shorts and flip-flops, going from New York to the Sunshine State, to take on the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center Thursday night.
The Jets (13-12-4) are coming off a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers Monday to improve to 3-1 on their current six-game road trip, Winnipeg’s longest stretch away from the MTS Centre this season.
Florida (7-16-5) fell 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators Tuesday and will look to earn only the second win to close out their current five-game home skid that ends with Winnipeg.
Least in the East
The Panthers’ struggles continue. They’re owners of the second-worst record in the NHL, winning just seven of their 28 regular season games this year.
They’re in the bottom three in the league for power play (12.4%) and penalty kill (75.3%) and allow the third-most goals per game (3.25).
Just how bad has it been in Florida: minus the 2011-12 campaign where they topped a South East Division bankrupt of skill, the Panthers have placed no better than second-last in the Eastern Conference in three of the last four seasons.
Of those years, their best showing came during the 2009-10 season where they finished five games under .500 (32-37-13).
In last year’s lockout-shortened season, Florida posted a league-worst 15-27-6.
But as a number of Jets personnel have said many times this season, there are no easy games in the National Hockey League. Gritty forward Chris Thorburn made the latest reference to that undisputed fact, noting the win over New York Monday was a perfect example of how each game is a chance to prove your worth within the league.
The Jets had their fair struggles against Florida over the past year. They won the season series, winning three games to two, but two of them were decided in overtime.
The two losses came in Florida where the Jets were outscored 10-4 in those games.
Sparking the PP
It continues to be a rough season for the Jets' power play. Winnipeg is dead last in the NHL on the man advantage, converting on just 11 of their 98 opportunities for a putrid success rate of 11.2 per cent.
Winnipeg’s lowest point on the PP came in Friday’s loss to the Philadelphia Flyers when the game was decided by a Sean Couturier short-handed goal. It was the Jets' league-high fifth shorthanded marker allowed this season.
Jets head coach Claude Noel has made attempts to improve the PP in the past two games by testing out different lineups. Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was reassigned to the front of the net against the Flyers. Against the Rangers, Blake Wheeler moved down to the second unit with rookie Mark Scheifele and Michael Frolik while veteran Olli Jokinen took shifts with captain Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little.
But sometimes all a team needs is one goal to get the wheels in motion.
A match-up against a Panthers team ranked 28th on the penalty kill, clicking at just 75.3 per cent, would be an ideal candidate for doing just that.
Where it all began
It’s been a tough road back to relevance in the NHL for Jets' defenceman Keaton Ellerby, who was drafted 10th overall by the Panthers in the 2007 NHL entry draft.
After a few disappointing seasons with the club he was moved to Los Angeles where he would eventually be placed on waivers and picked up by the Jets in early November.
The move came during a time where the Jets needed a quick fix on the blue line to help ease the bleeding from the absence of Jacob Trouba, Mark Stuart, and Paul Postma, who were all out with injuries.
But with Trouba and Stuart back in the lineup, it’s been the consistent play of Ellerby that has replaced urgency with stability and a reason why he’s become a regular six on the blue line for Winnipeg. In 14 games with the Jets, Ellerby has a goal and two assists and is a plus-3, averaging more than 20 shifts and 16 minutes of ice per game.
Ellerby’s journey continues in the place where it all began, marking it his first game against the Panthers since leaving two seasons ago.
Veteran leading the way
Ellerby wont be the only one returning to some old roots — veteran Olli Jokinen played 567 career games spanning seven seasons with the Panthers.
The Jets big centreman has been one of the team’s best players this road trip. The 34-year-old has four points in his last four games and is a plus-3 since hitting the road.
Jokinen scored two goals in the third period against the Rangers Monday, finishing with three points in the win. It was the second-consecutive game against his former club at Madison Square Garden that he’s registered a multi-goal game.
He hasn’t had the same kind of success against his former team in Florida, though.
In five games against the Panthers as a member of the Jets, Jokinen has recorded just two points (1g, 1a) and is a minus-2.
Thor-burning the opposition
With Evander Kane still on the shelf with a lower body injury, the Chris Thorburn experiment should get another look again tonight.
Thorburn was promoted from the fourth line to Kane’s spot on the second, alongside Devin Setoguchi and Jokinen.
That line combined for three goals and seven points in the win against New York. Both Setoguchi and Jokinen said after the game that Thorburn was easy to play with, noting his hard work in the corners really created space for the line.
Noel also approved of the move, saying he was satisfied with what the gritty forward brought to the line. But like most experiments, it takes a couple different tests before finding whether or not you’ve got the right solution.
Prediction: 3-2 Jets
With the Jets in the toughest division in the NHL, two points in the standings are vital against every team.
They can’t afford to take a night off, especially against a Florida team that’s failed to prove their worth this season.