5 things to watch as Jets host the red-hot Penguins
WATCH: Jets-Penguins preview with CBC Manitoba's Mitch Peacock and Jeff Hamilton
The Winnipeg Jets are back at it tonight, welcoming the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins to town in the final match of a two-game homestand.
The Jets (7-5-1) returned home Tuesday night to record their third consecutive win, a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators.
The Penguins (8-2-1) come in to Winnipeg winners of five straight games. In those games, Pittsburgh has outscored their opponents by a score of 23-4. They’ll look to continue their dominance against Winnipeg, the second stop in their current five-game road trip.
With that, here are 5 things to consider heading in to tonight’s game:
First of 50
He created excitement during training camp when he told reporters he felt capable of scoring 50 goals in a season.
Then, just three minutes in to the first period of the Jets’ season opener, forward Evander Kane went down with a knee injury, putting on hold for the moment any chance of finding the back of the net.
Thursday night will be his fifth game back in the lineup, and though he’s been one of the Jets' best players since his return, Kane is still searching for that first goal.
But that doesn’t seem to be a concern for head coach Paul Maurice.
“I like to think he has enough confidence in that he knows it’s going to come,” he said, following Wednesday’s practice at the MTS Centre.
“As long as it doesn’t change his game so that he starts looking for the goals ahead of the other parts of the game, he’s going to be fine.”
Maurice then added: “We’re not scoring a lot of goals right now so we can make that argument for a bunch of guys.”
Even though the Jets have collected points in six straight games, they’re doing it with as few goals as possible.
Winnipeg is averaging just 1.85 goals per game. In their last six games, they’ve two or fewer goals four times.
What’s most problematic about the Jets’ offensive struggles is they aren’t getting the kind of depth scoring they need to compete against the best in the NHL. Timely goals have come from the top-six, but more is needed throughout the lineup, specifically the third unit of Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry and Dustin Byfuglien.
Perreault, who was signed to a three-year, $9-million contract in the summer, is still without a goal through 13 games. Lowry has just one. Byfuglien has two on the year but they’ve been either with a different line or on the power play.
“I see that [line] more as two really big men and a guy that can handle the puck quite a bit,” said Maurice. “Dustin’s played really well. I mean he’s had a lot of chances these last three games. He hasn’t had much around the net to show for it.”
“We’ll need them to produce but at the same time I’m not looking at Adam Lowry to come in and score 25 goals in his first year in the NHL,” Maurice added.
“We need them to play just the way they did [against Nashville Tuesday]. They did what they needed to do to be effective to wear the other team’s defence down. I’m not as worried about them statistically.”
Blake Wheeler was asked whether he felt that style of hockey would be sustainable against a high-scoring Pittsburgh team.
“There aren’t many teams that win games on their offence,” he said. “It’s very rare that teams can just be carried by guys scoring goals because it’s tough to score goals in this league.”
Through 11 games, Pittsburgh has averaged an incredible 4.09 goals per contest. That’s more than a half goal better than any other team in the NHL and twice as many as the Jets.
It definitely helps when you have the league’s best power play orchestrated by two of the world’s best hockey players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins are ranked at the top on the man advantage, scoring on — get this — 41.3 per cent of their chances.
I caught up with Crosby after Pens’ practice Wednesday to ask him the secret behind their success.
“No real secret,” he said. “We’ve scored some different ways. Just in around the net we’ve been really good at finding loose pucks.
"The main thing is you got to try and outwork the [penalty kill] when you’re out there. If we do that then we give ourselves the chance, with the skill we have out there, to make some plays.”
The Jets, however, have been just as stingy on the defensive side as they have been in the offensive end. Winnipeg has surrendered just six goals in their last six games, and are currently ranked 6th in the NHL in goals-against.
“They haven’t given up much,” said Crosby of the Jets, before comparing them to their most recent game, a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild Tuesday.
“They didn’t give up a lot either. You expect to get chances but you also can’t get frustrated if they’re not there so you just have to make sure that when you do get it, you take advantage of them.”
The fury of Fleury
It doesn’t help the Jets that the Penguins are also getting support from their back end too.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been a wall between the pipes this season. He leads the NHL in shutouts with three and is tied for second in wins with seven.
It’s the kind of resume that caught the eyes of Pens’ GM Jim Rutherford, who on Wednesday pulled the trigger on a four-year, $23-million contract extension for Fleury.
“I liked him before I got here but once I got to know him and saw his work ethic and his determination and how he prepares for the game – he’s one of the top athletes on our team – you recognize then that he’s a really important part of the Penguins,” said Rutherford.
“I’m really happy,” said Fleury, now in his 11th season with the Penguins. “I’ve spent a lot of time here. It’s like my home. My teammates, I’ve been with them for a while.
"The organization has been great to me all these years and especially the fans. I couldn’t be more happy.”
Fleury is 5-1 against Winnipeg since the Jets' relocation in 2011.
Thursday night’s tilt marks the 500th career NHL game for Jets’ forward Bryan Little, all of which the Edmonton native has spent in the Thrashers/Jets organization.
“It’s definitely special,” Little said of the milestone. “I didn’t think I’d be at this point in my career this fast.”
So what does he remember about his first NHL game?
“I remember scoring my first game and it was probably one of my ugliest goals,” Little said. “ I think it was from behind the net and I just threw it in front and it just banged off something and went in. That seems like a really long time ago now.”
Hopefully some of that luck can return tonight. Little has a team-high 11 points with five goals and six assists in 13 games.