The Winnipeg Jets (5-7-2) will face their toughest test to date this season when they welcome the 2013 Stanley Cup Champions Chicago Blackhawks (8-2-3) to the MTS Centre Saturday afternoon.
The Jets will look to rebound from a four-game road trip where they were able to collect just three of a possible eight points, losing three of those games by a single goal.
As for the Blackhawks, they’ll hope to build on their current two-game winning streak.
Here are five things you will want to watch for in today’s game:
It’s the first of eight games – five at the MTS Centre – this season the Jets will play in a matinee game. Last year, Winnipeg went 2-3-2 in games that started before 2 p.m.
Day games are often considered difficult for many players. There’s no pre-game skate and less game day preparation. If slow starts were an issue before, how the Jets perform early in this game will be something to look out for.
The Jets should be well rested and well prepared. They’re coming off three days of practice in which they’ve focused on the fine details of their game and are eager to take on last year’s champs.
“Any time you get to play the defending Stanley Cup Champions it’s a great challenge for us,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd. “We’ve played some good hockey lately and we know we can play with those teams so I think it’s an exciting challenge for us.”
For those worried about the Jets current task, here’s a fun fact: the Jets have never lost a game at the MTS Centre against a defending Stanley Cup Champion. Twice they played Boston during the 2011-2012 season following their cup run the previous year, outscoring the Bruins 6-3 in those games.
A familiar foe for Jets trio
That said, the Jets aren’t exactly familiar with the Blackhawks, having faced them only once – a 4-3 Chicago win on October 13, 2011– since arriving in Winnipeg two seasons ago.
But there are three players on the current roster that may be able to help cover anything missing on the team’s scouting report.
Captain Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien both won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, and forward Michael Frolik was part of last season’s championship team.
“We know they’ve got great offence,” said Frolik after practice Friday. “If you want to be successful I think you need to play good defence and have good transition in the offence. It’s going to be a great test for us.”
All three were traded from Chicago following cup wins and although bridges may not be burnt for Ladd, Buff and Frolik, expect each to rise to the occasion against their old club.
“Obviously when someone trades you, you want to prove to them they made a mistake,” said Frolik.
Trouble in Chi-town
If there’s anything lacking this year from a Chicago team that lost just seven of 48 games in regulation last season, it’s their inability to kill off penalties.
The Blackhawks are ranked dead last on the penalty kill with a success rate of just 72.5 per cent. The Jets on the other hand, are struggling to find the net on the man advantage and it could be the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to break out of their slump.
“If we had success on the power play it does a lot of things for you,” said Jets head coach Claude Noel.
“It gathers momentum, brings confidence. It brings an expectation level that helps you believe that you have a chance to win the game. There’s a game within the game and that’s the special teams game.”
The Jets are ranked 26th on the power play, converting just six goals on 54 trips with the man advantage.
He’s arguably the best Winnipeg-born hockey player to ever lace up a pair of skates and on Saturday, Hawk’s captain, Jonathan Toews, makes his return home.
Toews, 25, grew up in St. Vital before leaving to the US as a teenager to pursue his hockey career. Now in his seventh NHL season, Toews has won two Stanley Cups and was an integral part of Team Canada’s run for gold in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
He’s got a local community club named after him, and even a lake, but Saturday’s game will be Toews first time playing against the team he grew up watching.
“He’s done some great things and is a proud Winnipegger,” opined Ladd. “Everyone is probably excited to see him for the first time.”
The same can probably said for the man himself. Despite the excitement of having a number of family and friends in attendance, Toews has seen success against the Jets/Thrashers organization throughout his career. In five career games he’s racked up seven points (4g, 3a) and is a plus-2
Confidence in the NHL is built through winning. This is especially true for goalies.
For Jets starting net minder, Ondrej Pavelec, a victory against the Blackhawks Saturday would mark the first in his career against Chicago and a big step forward in proving he can battle with the best.
In three career games against Chi-town, Pavelec is 0-1-2, with two those losses coming in a shootout. He’s also faced a lot of rubber, averaging 37 shots per game.
So what about backup goalie, Al Montoya?
Well, he hasn’t had much luck either. The 28-year-old Montoya is winless in two career games versus Chicago, losing one in overtime and the other in a shootout.
Will Pavelec finally be the one to break the curse?
Prediction: 5-2 Blackhawks
The Jets are thin on the blue line with three of their top-seven defencemen currently on injured reserve. This won’t bode well against one of the league’s most offensively gifted teams. The Jets have fared well in the last few games against skilled teams but it’s hard to think that they’ll be able to turn the corner against the defending Stanley Cup Champions rich in all areas.