Our two fastest boys.
Before they could celebrate their OT home win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets were back on a plane bound for Chicago, getting ready to face the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks for the fourth (and thankfully last) time this season. The ‘Hawks have manhandled the Jets all season long like they were Division 5, but tonight may be a different story.
The Blackhawks have struggled as of late, going 4-2-4 over their last ten games – easily their worst stretch of the season. There doesn’t seem to be any deeper reason for this other than every great team will go through a slump occasionally. Though Kane’s production has slowed recently with 6 points in his last 10 games, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, and Keith are still contributing consistently like star players. Keith missed Thursday’s 2-1 to the Wild due to illness, but is expected to play tonight.
Quenville’s ‘Hawks play an aggressive, uptempo game based around creating offense. This is somewhat in contrast to most of the NHL’s other great teams – like the Blues, Kings, and Bruins – who grind their opponents down with restrictive defensive systems. Chicago also possesses well-known depth, with a bottom six forward corps many small budget teams would be proud to use as a top six.
In their previous three meetings this season, the Blackhawks outplayed and outscored the Jets 15-5. Winnipeg simply couldn’t keep up with Chicago’s speed and transitional game. Noel’s Jets often had this problem, struggling to maintain control in any zone, and giving structured opposition all the space they sought. However, since his hiring, Maurice’s Jets have improved dramatically in these areas, and should be a much tougher opponent for the Blackhawks this time around.
Chicago will outmatch Winnipeg in depth until General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff makes some much needed roster changes. The Jets are no doubt the more tired squad, playing the second half of their back-to-back (the ‘Hawks have been off since Thursday), but Winnipeg can contend tonight with their improved zone play, and if their stars can push through the fatigue and log big minutes.
- Ladd – Little – Frolik
- Kane – Scheifele – Wheeler
- Setoguchi – Jokinen – Byfuglien
- Thorburn – O’Dell – Peluso
Ladd, Byfuglien, and Frolik have all played for and won Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks as depth players behind aforementioned stars Toews and company. In Winnipeg, all three players have become vital cogs in the Jets engine – when used correctly.
As constantly espoused here on Jets Nation, we do not think Byfuglien should still be playing forward. His lack of speed has been evident recently in games against Anaheim, San Jose, and Toronto, and Chicago shouldn’t be any different. This is a group that never seems to stop skating. Byfuglien – and the bottom six in general – with have a hard time handling Chicago’s pace.
Speaking of the bottom six, Eric O’Dell figures to slot back into the line-up after counterpart James Wright just wasn’t getting it done. O’Dell isn’t a dominant player by any means, but is miles ahead of every other fourth line option the Jets have.
- Bogosian – Enstrom
- Stuart – Trouba
- Pardy – Ellerby
Enstrom played two outstanding games against the Ducks and Sharks, and he had to. Bogosian seems to be steadily improving, but now in his fifth NHL season, that’s something we shouldn’t really be saying anymore. For everything he does well, like his ability to carry the puck out of his zone, he makes a mistake, like when he tries to distribute the puck after carrying it out of the zone. Enstrom needs another big game tonight, but one can’t help but think it may be asking too much this time around.
Montoya should start tonight, both with Pavelec playing last night and with Pavelec playing bad last night. The ‘Hawks can expose the best of goalies, but Montoya has been a solid back-up this season, putting up better numbers than Pavelec and playing a more calm game with less unnecessary movement.
- Sharp – Toews – Hossa
- Saad – Shaw – Kane
- Bickell – Handzus – Versteeg
- Bolig – Kruger – Smith
Not much needs to be said about this group. Four of these players are in the NHL’s top 30 scorers (as well as Duncan Keith). Kane, Toews, Hossa, and Sharp seem to be able to score at will. Like a Whac-A-Mole game, the Jets defence will have trouble trying to keep all these star players from getting chances.
Since his return from Florida, Versteeg has been a great depth player for the ‘Hawks. His trade back in November prompted many Jets fans to ask, "Wait, Versteeg was available?" Also, this happened.
- Keith – Seabrook
- Hjalmarsson – Leddy
- Rozsival – Oduya
Duncan Keith returns tonight after missing Thursday’s game with the flu. Keith returned to Norris form this year, reaching 40 assists faster than any other Blackhawks defenceman in franchise history. Keith averages 24:35 of ice time per game this season, and when he’s on the ice, the puck is rarely in Chicago’s zone. Paired with
Hamhuis Seabrook, and you have an Olympic-calibre top pairing.
Hjalmarsson, Leddy, and Oduya have blossomed into good defenceman in their own right, and round out a defensive group as formidable as any across the league.
Crawford gets the start tonight. The netminder’s quality of play has declined slowly over the course of the season, but it doesn’t have to be amazing in front of this Blackhawks team. The Jets top players can score with the best of them (well, maybe not the best), and if they can create chances, the Jets have the finish to beat Crawford.
The Jets obviously have a tough task ahead of them tonight. Not only are they on the second game of a home-and-away back-to-back, but they face one of the NHL’s premier franchises. It’s hard to imagine the Jets feeling fresh and energized today, but they will need to play a high-pace game to keep up with the well rested ‘Hawks. When tired, it’s always important to get your powerplay going, though it’s hard to draw penalties when you’re tired.
It’s a real Catch-22, I tell you what.