March 14 2012 12:12PM
After a fruitless road trip to the Canadian West, the Jets return to action tonight facing a rather unpleasant reality. The mirage of a playoff spot held mostly by playing more games than other teams has ended, and as a result, they find themselves 6 points in arrears with 13 to play. Not optimal, to say the least.
This evening's opponent presents a significant challenge in their own right, and unlike the last visitor to MTS, their recent hot streak has the whiff of something a bit sturdier.
Dallas hasn't lost in regulation since February 19th, and timeonice.com reveals that the 11 games hence have been well played by the Stars. Dallas' EV tied Fenwick in that run is .534, which is a perfectly nice figure, and if you remember back to the Buffalo preview, the Sabres were batting .435 in their roll leading up to Winninpeg's 3-1 victory. I wasn't buying Buffalo at all. Dallas, on the other hand, is a pretty good team.
The primary movers up front for the Stars are Ribeiro and Benn. Mike Ribeiro isn't exactly a beloved figure around the NHL for any number of reasons, but the guy's a proper NHL center. He can survive against good players under less than ideal circumstances, and his ability to manage against the toughs has allowed others on the roster to flourish. His performance certainly made Brad Richards' life easier over the last couple of years, and I occasionally wonder if, in a contemplative moment, Richards has the wit to realize what a significant role Ribs played in gifting him that easy icetime, and the juicy point totals that went with it.
Ribeiro and Vern Fiddler have given the Stars a solid pair of vets down the middle, and they've gotten a ton of mileage out of Michael Ryder, but Jamie Benn is the player Dallas will rely upon in the future. He appears up to the challenge. The Stars have been able to balance their QComp numbers this year, largely because of Benn's progression. The former Kelowna Rocket is an outshooter despite starting in his own end a bit more often than not, and players on their ELC's that can manage that trick against decent comp are pretty rare.
I do note that he doesn't have a deal for next year, and a budget team like Dallas might consider waiting until the new CBA gets signed before re-upping the former 5th rounder. One of the owners' bones of contention in the current deal is the inflated nature of second contracts, and if that situation gets addressed in any meaningful way, the Stars might save a few nickels by exhibiting some patience. Contract stuff aside, Benn's a serious player, and one to watch tonight.
On the backend, Dallas is a bit nicked, with Souray out for a week or so, which leaves Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas to carry the mail. Robidas is a terrific player, outshooting against the toughs, and playing in every conceivable situation along the way. His excellent partnership with Souray has allowed Goligoski to kill middling comp this year, and as a result the Stars have been able to become a good team 5 v 5 after a few years of struggling.
The Jets would appear to be catching one other break tonight, as the Stars used Kari Lehtonen in last night's 1-0 win in St. Paul, which means Richard Bachmann will get the start at MTS. Bachmann has been pretty good in his limited role, however, so the Jets shouldn't expect an easier go simply because a back up is in net.
Dallas is a handful in their own right, but the Jets have plenty of things to worry about at the moment irrespective of the opponent, and the putrid special teams are front and center. Winnipeg's combined PP and PK currently sport a -12 goal differential, which under normal circumstances would be worth about 4 points in the standings.
It's a figure earned on the merits as well. The Jets have attempted 77 fewer shots 5 v 4 than they've allowed when a man down. At a median shooting percentage of about 12 in that game state, the Jets should be about 9 goals down just via shot totals. Toss in an extra couple of shorthanded goals against, and the picture is pretty clear. If they miss the post-season, their struggles away from 5 v 5 play will be the primary factor.
On the injury front, Zach Bogosian will sit out one more night, from the sounds of things. That's not good. The team needs his ability to soak up minutes against good players so that Byfuglien and Enstrom can get a few easier looks, and the Jets really could do without Hainsey and Clitsome playing as a duo versus top comp, so the sooner 4 returns, the better. Of course, the Jets' first choice D has played maybe a dozen games together this year, so what's another night where that doesn't happen, right?
Game wise, the Jets will have the advantage of a team coming in late from St. Paul, and with Bogo out, they'll need it. The Stars will certainly miss Souray, so jumping on Dallas early and working their D not named Goligoski or Robidas will be the way to success. As well, as much as Winnipeg's special teams have scuffled, Dallas might be even worse, at least by outshooting rates, and Bachmann hasn't been nearly as good as Lehtonen when Dallas is on the PK, so that might be an area the Jets can exploit, provided that they can get out of their own way on the PP.
Puck drop is 7:30-ish on TSN Jets.