The Jets’ second and final match against the Sabres comes just 14 days after the first one – a head-shaking 4-2 loss against an historically bad offensive team. Buffalo still only has 66 goals on the season (that’s right, 6% of their goals in half a season came in one game against the Jets), but are third to last in December scoring, ahead of Calgary and Montreal. Before the Jets gave up four to the Wild, the Sabres had the lead on that squad as well.
The Jets will play Al Montoya in this one, and Buffalo is countering with their back-up Jonas Enroth. A three game winning streak would be the Jets’ second longest of the season, and a loss would be a groaner even if the consequences are low for inter-conference play. It’s another pride game for these Jets, and another opportunity to show they can put together 60 minutes without playing down to their opponent.
Buffalo is coming out of their funk just a little. In December, the team has improved their goals for as well as their goals against, with just a -3 goal differential through 11 games. Ryan Miller is still making an excellent case to backstop the American Olympic team, and things are steadily improving in all areas under magic maker Ted Nolan.
The team also acquired Linus Omark, the Youtube sensation that the Oilers kept buried in the AHL despite averaging a point per game in the lower league and dominating the Swiss-A league during the lockout. Jet lag, no practice time, and then the flu has made for a flat Omark debut, but no doubt his puck magic will return in due time. He’s also much more gritty than he’s given credit for, and at 5’10", 180lbs, you wouldn’t expect so much of his offence come from board play. In truth, he’s much more dynamic in tight spaces, reacting in his puck control than in open ones, and you’ll see him engage defenders to try to beat them rather than take the simple play. He scored 27 points in 51 games for the Oilers one season, and with some PP time and the Player Whisperer behind the bench, he might be a genuine scoring forward.
The Jets, meanwhile, have two lines going for the first time in quite a while. Their two-game winning streak accounts for two of their three regulation or overtime wins against Divisional opponents and is the first 2-game streak since the Eastern Conference trip in late November. With Pavelec on the bench, the team has a much better chance to win in the near term. The starter’s performance this month has pulled the Jets down to 22nd in defence with 3.08 goals against per game. That has spoiled their 10th best offence through December and led to a .500 record on the month of 6-6-1.
- Ladd – Little – Wheeler
- Kane – Scheifele – Frolik
- Thorburn – Jokinen – Setoguchi
- Tangradi – Wright – Peluso
Blake Wheeler’s 14 points in December has elevated him to second in scoring with 31 to Little’s 33. Olli Jokinen has 11 points this month, and Scheifele 10. But Jokinen’s strong start to the month has given way to Scheifele’s strong finish alongside his new linemates. Kane has been a stand-out, in fact, with 6 points in his 7 December games. But Mark Scheifele was the only Jets forward to get points in the last outing against Buffalo, and it was his two laser wristers 36 seconds apart that opened the scoring in the game.
The Jets will need all of their top-8 to step up in this game and make a convincing case that the team is better than the league basement Sabres.
- Enstrom – Trouba
- Ellerby – Byfuglien
- Stuart – Bogosian
Trouba tied Byfuglien this month in scoring with 1 goal and 7 assists. We know he’s done it against lesser opponents mostly, but it’s a heck of a month for the rookie defenceman. Since being paired with Enstrom, the young man has been outstanding. Crazy what a little puck support can do for a player.
Bogosian and Stuart could each be playing hurt at this point, but I wasn’t impressed with their game against Colorado. They played John Mitchell to a stand still and were exposed in a few shifts against Duchene. The team has more talented right handed defencemen than left handed ones, and it means someone draws the short straw every game. It’s been Trouba earlier in the year, and right now it’s Bogosian.
Al Montoya gets the logical start, but I’m sure it was still a hard decision for Noel. He’s been careful to say that Pav is the starter, but given his play in the month of December and the team’s extreme need for a string of wins, Montoya had to be the one to go. Still, with each win, the decision gets at once easier and more awkward. It’s ‘going with the hot glove’ to fans and media, but it’s ‘soon, soon’ to the man who wants his net back. And what does the coach do if Pavelec blows another game in his return? It’s an easy choice from the outside, but I can only imagine it’s an awkward one from the inside.
- Moulson – Ennis – Girgensons
- Foligno – Leino – Omark
- Ott – Flynn – Stafford
- D’Agostini – Ellis – Scott
It’s… uhhh… well, it’s not the ’70’s Canadiens. Superstar John Scott – the only player who played 150 NHL games with 5 or fewer points in league history – draws in on the fourth line. Cody Hodgson is still out with his wrist injury, it seems.
But in reality, the team’s top-9 is the problem. I’m not sure what happened to Tyler Ennis, but he’s fallen flat of his scoring potential. Perhaps some time with Matt Moulson will be good for a passer who can create space. And equally, Moulson has shown he needs some help to create goals. But even if that lineup works, the team is relying on Linus Omark to carry the offence of extremely poor signing Ville Leino and prototypical 3rd liner Marcus Foligno.
Brian Flynn – he of 6 points in 37 games – is centring two power forwards who can’t buy a goal for all their bloated salary.
It’s a mess. But I do hope we see Omark on a powerplay, or that Nolan lets him set up behind the net. There isn’t a better player from behind the net in today’s NHL. If you love your hockey to be entertaining, you’ll love his tricks from the back office.
- Tallinder – Myers
- Pysyk – Ehrhoff
- McBain – Weber
Henrik Tallinder might be the second best defender in this lineup, behind Ehrhoff. But Ehrhoff is a classic case of a defender with a limited tool box who just seems to get results. He’s on the ‘Y the H’ line and I think broadly underappreciated league wide.
Jamie McBain’s real career path has followed his career in my fantasy hockey league. High hopes led to a trade that revealed his value to be much lower than originally imagined.
But the sad reality of this team is that if Tyler Myers was as good as his contract suggests he should be, this defence group would probably be pretty close to league average. I’m still cheering for that young man.
It’s another winnable game against a team playing its backup netminder with the top centre in the press box. Last time, the Jets scored two and played arrogant hockey the rest of the way on their way to losing. Part of organization and preparation is being able to play your own game at your highest level regardless of your opponent. The Jets haven’t been good at that in 2013. It’s their last chance to change that.