March 01 2012 02:36PM
When the schedule was drawn up last summer, tonight's Winnipeg-Florida game seemed an unlikely candidate to be a meaningful affair, with the ex-Thrashers and still-Panthers having spent last year wallowing in the depths of the Eastern Conference's second tier. Washington and Tampa were the clear heavyweights starting the season, and by this point in the year, the night seemed certain to just be another dreary encounter between two teams that would once again be relegated to playing out the string.
Of course, that's not quite how the year has unfolded, and as a result this evening's match at the Arena That Elbow Room Forgot has all the appearance of a game with actual playoff implications. With all caveats about the horrid level of the East this year noted, that's a surprising, and welcome, development.
The nearness of the standings is still a bit deceiving from the Winnipeg POV because of all the games in hand that teams like Florida and Washington have over the locals, but those teams have to actually win those games, and as we've witnessed in this year's Southeast Division's turtle race, no one team has been able to shake loose, at least not as of yet. With that in mind, this evening looms as Winnipeg's last, best, hope to make a dent in the Panthers' 4 point edge.
They'll do so at what passes for full strength, as Zach Bogosian returns after a two week stint on the shelf with some variety of upper body ailment. Bogosian has made significant strides this year, as the 21 year old has gone from being smoked against good comp last year in Atlanta to breaking even in analogous circumstances this year. Young defenders never seem to make precisely linear improvement, and Bogosian is hardly the finished article, but after 252 NHL games, he looks like he's starting to grasp the concept.
Beyond Bogosian's own improved work this year, his return holds two other benefits, in my view. Dustin Byfuglien played over 28 minutes on Monday versus the Oilers, and looked about cooked by the third period in doing so, which suggests that cutting his minutes back by about 5 or thereabouts will likely be a plus. Bogosian's ability to play 20 solid minutes should accomodate that need.
The other benefit to Bogosian's insertion into the lineup is that it will reduce the need for Randy Jones to play as much, and that can only be seen as a blessing at this point. I'm sure he's a nice man and all, kind to children and animals and that sort of thing, but I'll confess after Monday night's fiasco I'm about ready to begin marking the days until he's elsewhere like a prison calendar.
It was easy to write off the Panthers heading into the fall, and although there's a whiff of good fortune to their continued place atop the SE, they've given the Jets fits in the season series, winning three of the four encounters. They've gotten solid years out of Fleishmann, Campbell, Garrison and Weiss, and their goaltending has held up through the first 3/4 of the year, as Jose Theodore has more or less matched what they got from Tomas Vokoun in 10/11.
Unlike the Jets on deadline day, the Panthers did add a pair of forwards for depth, obtaining Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski to bolster the front line. I mentioned on Twitter at the time of his trade that, given his chequered past, it was appropriate that Wolski joined Tallon's Island of Misfit Toys in a bid to restart his careeer. He's managed 1G, 1A, +2 in his 3 games with Florida, and if he can somehow manage to play anywhere near his talent level for the next several weeks, Florida might have something.
One blessing for Winnipeg this evening is that Florida's lineup is absent the one player that the Jets have struggled the most to account for this season. Kris Versteeg is hors de combat with a lower body wound, and I can't imagine that Winnipeg will shed any tears. He's killed them in transition this year, creating goals out of turnovers near the Jet blueline on a couple of occasions, so Florida will miss his speed on attack.
Gamewise, Florida has just seemed to be the quicker team off the mark at MTS Centre, outskating the Jets in the early portions of the games before going into the shell with a lead, so a proper start would go a ways to securing a win. The other thing that might be nice is if the Jets could get back to pressuring teams on the PK. They've scuffled when down a man for about a week straight save the St. Louis game, and Florida has scored 4 PP goals in the 4 games against Winnipeg this year, so better work on the kill and staying out of the box at all if possible is likely paramount.
Ondrej Pavelec not stinking out the joint would likely help as well, and in fairness to him, he hasn't played many poor games in succession, so with decent goaltending, Winnipeg should be in with a shout in a game they have to win in regulation to have any hope of finishing third in the East. Puck drop is 7:30-ish, with TV coverage on TSN Jets.