The Winnipeg Jets (10-11-3) dropped their second consecutive game in a 6-3 shellacking at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night. It was Winnipeg’s third loss to the Blackhawks this season.
They’ll try to prevent the same thing from happening when they welcome the Minnesota Wild (14-5-4) to the MTS Centre today, a team that’s also claimed two wins against the Jets this year.
A not-so wild affair
It’s no secret that Minnesota’s style of play is boring. They force teams to dumb down their game and rarely allow any quality scoring chances.
That’s been the case in both games this season between Minnesota and Winnipeg, with the Wild squeezing out identical 2-1 wins in both contests.
“The one thing Minnesota does is they force you to play the right way for 60 minutes,” said head coach Claude Noel following Friday’s practice.
And so will be the case for the Jets tomorrow, who at this juncture in the season, can’t afford to give up any points in the standings, especially to a division opponent like Minnesota.
“Tomorrow is a big one,” said defenceman Mark Stuart. “Minnesota is a team we haven’t beat and a team that we’re fighting with. We need the points and we need to get a win before this (six-game) trip. For sure.”
Back on the blue line
Speaking of Stuart, he’ll make his return to the Jets lineup after a hip injury left him sidelined for 10 games. The injury to Stuart was a big blow to the Jets blue line, magnified by its timing as it came almost immediately following the loss of rookie Jacob Trouba to a neck strain.
“It will be good,” said Noel about the return of Stuart. “He plays with a lot of emotion. Drags people in to the fight.”
Stuart brings the type of emotion and drive that’s been lacking on a Jets team currently mirrored in a three-game losing streak.
“He plays with his heart on a sleeve and sometimes you miss that emotion as well,” said Noel. “Just got to make sure he keeps his emotional level in check. He starts to take that on to the ice and before you know it, it’s out there.”
Special teams boost
With Stuart back in the lineup, the Jets get a much-needed boost to their struggling penalty kill. The Jets have given up seven power play goals to their opponents in the last six games and currently rank 17th in the league, killing off 81.9 per cent of their opportunities.
“Special teams has its ups-and-downs,” said Stuart, who before getting injured logged the second most PK minutes on the Jets. “If you look at power plays around the league, they kind of ebb and flow. It’s not lack of effort on our PK right now. Maybe some breakdowns that we’ll continue to discuss and look at. We’re aware of them. It’s just a matter of going out and getting the job done.
“You can’t make the excuse all the time, but sometimes they’re just going in and you maybe need a game to kill off three or four to kind of get it turned around.”
With the man advantage
Unlike the penalty kill, the Jets power play has started to turn around. After sitting in dead last for a majority of the season, Winnipeg has climbed to 25th best in the NHL with a 13.1 per cent success rate. Still nothing to brag about but the improvement has been steady of late.
The Jets have scored five power play goals in the last four games. What makes it even more impressive is they’ve achieved that mark in only 13 opportunities with the man advantage.
Winnipeg has also converted on all three of their five-on-three power plays so far this year, a big improvement from going 0-for-10 in last year’s shortened season.
“Things come and go and I think we’ve gotten a chance to develop a plan,” said Wheeler of the team’s power play. “Five on three can kind of get overlooked a little bit and I think we weren’t able to get on the same page as much last year as we’d like. This year, I think we were able to develop a plan, what we wanted to do, get the right guys you want to execute that plan and from there it’s just about going out and executing that plan.”
The Jets have a favourable matchup in the Wild this afternoon. Minnesota comes in to the game ranked 24th in the league on the penalty kill with a 77.4 per cent efficiency rate. Popping in a couple PP goals will be the Jets best route to a victory as the Wild have allowed a league low 24 even-strength goals this season.
Beating the odds
It’s one the greatest stories in the National Hockey League. Wild goaltender, Josh Harding, publically announced in November 2012 that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that slowly takes over one’s body.
With the odds stacked against him, many believed he’d be unable to continue his hockey career.
Fast-forward a year, and the 29-year-old native of Regina is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he’s on the path to having a career season.
In 19 games this year, Harding is 13-3-3, already hitting his wins total from last season. He is tied for second in the league in wins and shutouts (2), second in goals-against-average (1.48) and fifth in save percentage (.939).
In two games against the Jets this season, Harding has stopped 35 of 37 shots, allowing just a single goal in each of his two wins this season.
Prediction: 2-1 Jets
It’s probably a safe bet this game finishes with a low score. There have only been a combined six goals in two games between these two clubs, with the defensive battle being the key to success. The Jets may have come short the two previous nights, but with home advantage in favour of Winnipeg and the urgency to get back on track after losing three straight, Winnipeg edges out the win.