The Winnipeg Jets will be in the national spotlight Saturday night when they take on the Toronto Maples Leafs on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.
The Jets (23-24-5) snapped a four-game win streak Thursday night with a 1-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Sharks’ forward Joe Pavelski scored 6:38 in to the third period for the only goal of the game.
The Maple Leafs (27-21-5) snapped a streak of their own, losing their first game in seven contests in a demoralizing 7-1 loss to the Dallas Stars earlier this week. The Stars exploded for four goals in the second period to put the game out of reach and earn a valuable two points in the standings.
So with that, here are five things to keep in mind for tonight’s game:
Thursday’s loss to the Sharks was the first defeat for the Jets under new head coach Paul Maurice. Maurice had led Winnipeg to wins over Phoenix, Calgary, Edmonton and Anaheim to kick off his tenure in Winnipeg, setting off a resurgence of confidence for both players and fans in the city.
Maurice has stressed hard work and effort with his group over the last two weeks since given the controls by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and what he’s got in return has been astonishing. The Jets have played some of their best hockey of the season – and maybe the two before – under their new boss but as we’ve seen so many times before, will they continue to move forward when faced with adversity? Like so many times this season, with every step forward, it’s usually a couple steps back that follow.
It would be safe to assume that the Maple Leafs team that arrived in Winnipeg for practice Friday will have a chip on their shoulder after such a terrible loss to Dallas. Will the Jets be able to match that anger following their recent defeat at the hands of the Sharks? Jetsland can only hope that some of that Maurice magic is left come puck drop.
Long time, no see old friend
It’s the first match on the calendar between these two teams this year. It’s taken close to four months to finally meet with the Jets now in the Western Conference.
That’s not to suggest these teams are strangers to one another. The Jets took the season series two games to one last year, clinching the third game, 5-4, in a shootout. The Jets are 4-2-1 in seven games against the Leafs since relocating from Atlanta to start the 2011-12 season.
Blake Wheeler has led the Jets in scoring against the Leafs during that stretch with five goals and one assist. Phil Kessel tops the Leafs with eight goals and two assists against versus Winnipeg.
If you were to scroll through the roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs you’d think they had a full-time scout living in Manitoba. Five players from the Leafs have roots in the 204, including four forwards and a goalie.
Forwards Carter Ashton, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr all have Winnipeg on their birth certificate while Troy Bodie – also a forward - grew up in Portage La Prairie. Leafs’ net minder James Reimer rounds out the group as he honed his skills playing in the small town of Morweena, Man.
McLaren and Orr have combined for zero points and 163 penalty minutes in 42 games this season. Bodie is the only one with a goal (1g, 3a) amongst the group and Ashton has two assists in 27 games this year. Needless to say, this group has been mainly used for their muscle, making up a majority of the Leafs bottom six up front.
It may be easy for Jets fans to hate the Leafs but wouldn’t a loss to an opponent be a little less disheartening knowing there are a few of your own on the team? Nah, I didn’t think so. Still, it’s pretty cool.
Centre of attention
It appears Toronto has found the No.1 centreman they’ve been looking for, in Tyler Bozak. Despite missing a fair chunk of the season due to injuries, Bozak has returned to Leafs’ lineup with a vengeance, scoring at a pace not even his bosses could have thought was possible.
In 29 games this season, Bozak has nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points. In 13 games since returning from an oblique injury, the 27-year-old has five goals and nine assists for 14 points and is no longer overlooked from opposing teams despite being slated on a line with star wingers, Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk.
What might be the most impressive stat on Bozak this year is his shot accuracy. He leads the Leafs in shooting percentage at 23.1, up from 19.7 per cent a season ago. He also averages close to 21 minutes of ice time per game which is tops amongst all Maple Leaf forwards.
There’s no doubt the Jets will be keeping an eye on Kessel and Van Riemsdyk in this one but they will want to pay some extra attention to the guy in the middle too.
The play of Jets’ goalie, Ondrej Pavelec, has seen a dramatic improvement over the last stretch of games. In his last five starts, the 26-year-old Czech has posted a 4-1 record, has allowed two or fewer goals and has posted a save percentage over .945 three times.
It was the kind of performance Jets fans needed from their No.1 guy between the pipes. Pavelec had been at the centre of fan criticism right up to the firing of Claude Noel, and with good cause. Almost a third of Pavelec’s wins have come in the last week and a half. Prior to his current 4-1 record, Pavelec had managed to claim only one win in his last 12 starts.
Which Pavelec will we see tonight against the Leafs?
Prediction: 3-2 Jets
The Jets return home from a two-game roadie through California feeling pretty good about themselves. They beat the Ducks, giving them their first home loss in regulation this season and limited a prolific San Jose offence to just one goal. A quick start to this one and the Jets should end up on the winning side of things.