5 things to watch for in Winnipeg Jets home opener vs. the Preds
You can feel it. Hockey is in the air.
After a tough road trip that began with a win in Arizona but ended with a two-game skid through California with losses against the San Jose Sharks and L.A. Kings, the Jets return home Friday night for their home opener against the Nashville Predators.
Here are five things to keep in mind for Friday’s match:
Home sweet home
There’s no doubt the MTS Centre is one of the NHL’s loudest rinks. But home ice advantage hasn’t exactly been that advantageous over the past two seasons.
Indeed, Winnipeg has been unable to return to the kind of success they had in their inaugural year - the 2011-12 campaign - where they went 23-13-5 at home.
Following Wednesday’s skate, third-liner Mathieu Perreault was asked if he remembered how hard it was to play against the Jets that year as a member of the Washington Capitals.
After all, he was there when Jets fans attempted to provoke superstar Alexander Ovechkin by chanting “Crosby’s Better,” referring to one of the game’s greats, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s always a hard building to play in,” he recalled, adding that he was excited to play his first regular season match in front of the loud crowd in Winnipeg.
“You go around the league and people will tell you it is. All these buildings, where crowds are really loud, it’s always tough for the opposing team to come in and play.”
Over the past two seasons, however, the Jets have been unable to take advantage of that, finishing just a shade above .500 with a 31-27-7 record at home.
If the Jets hope to make the playoffs, this will certainly be an area they’ll need to improve on.
Another area the Jets are looking to boost is the power play.
Unlike the penalty kill, where the Jets are a perfect 14-for-14 and have even scored a short-handed goal, Winnipeg has yet to find the back of the net in nine opportunities with the man advantage.
It’s something the Jets have put additional work in to this week. Tuesday was a special-teams focused practice and on Wednesday, the team started the skate a bit early to work on the power play breakout.
Maurice has preached the need to be ‘shot first’ on the power play so expect the Jets to be looking for the net often. Big bodies like Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd will also be tasked with giving opposing goalies fits in front of the net.
The Predators have allowed two goals in nine tries on the penalty kill this year, an effort good enough for 19th.
New look in Nashville
It’s not the same old Nashville team this season. You know, the defensively stingy team we’ve all come to expect from the Music City.
That’s because there’s a new sheriff in town.
After 15 years, Predators’ management decided they needed a different voice behind the bench, replacing their only coach in team history, the legendary Barry Trotz, with another veteran presence in Peter Laviolette.
“They’re trying to implement more of the offensive game that we’ve seen from teams that (Laviolette) has coached,” said Jets bench boss Paul Maurice following Wednesday’s skate at the MTS Centre. “They’re aggressive, on the puck, they like to control it and create as much confusion in the offensive zone as they can.”
Laviolette, who’s had stints in Boston, New York (Islanders), Carolina, and Philadelphia over a 13-year coaching career in the NHL, wasn’t the only move the team made this offseason.
The team also cleaned house in the locker room, adding five new pieces including sniper James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Ribeiro from the Coyotes and the heavy hitting defenceman, Anton Volchenkov, who played last season with the Devils in New Jersey.
Olli-smokes he’s back!
Also included in the newcomers in Nashville is former Winnipeg Jet, Olli Jokinen.
Jokinen played two seasons with the Jets before the team decided to go in a different direction this summer, signing instead, the versatile centreman Mathieu Perreault.
“It’s always weird playing old teammates,” said Jets’ captain Andrew Ladd of Jokinen. “It’s tough to see him on the other side but you hope he’s doing well and it will be fun to face him.”
The Jets’ Jim Slater, who often battled with the 15-year veteran during face-off drills in practice over the past two seasons and calls him a close friend, showed concern for his former mate.
“He’s got the long hair now,” joked Slater. “He looks like a rock star so I don’t know what Nashville has done to him.”
Jokinen has zero points and nine shots through three games this season.
Top of the Pekka-ing order
The biggest obstacle for the Jets, both literally and figuratively, will be Predators’ net minder Pekka Rinne.
Rinne, a two-time Vezina award finalist, returns this season completely recovered from an E. coli infection in his left hip. The injury proved costly to the Preds as Rinne appeared to be at the top of his game at the time, going 3-1-1 with a 1.60 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage in his final five games before being sidelined for 51.
Unfortunately for the Jets, Rinne looks to be having another hot start to this year.
In three starts between the pipes this season, he’s put up similar numbers with a 2-0-1 record, 1.62 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
Neither Rinne, nor the Jets, have seen much of each other since the Jets' move to Winnipeg. Due to his injury and the lockout-shortened season the year prior, Rinne has played the Jets just once in the past three seasons. And that game wasn’t until late in to the Jets first season in Winnipeg - a 3-1 win over the Jets back on Mar. 24, 2012, in a game where Rinne was named the game’s first star.