The Jets return from the holiday break sitting 6th in the West, but still 4th in the Central and thus in a Wildcard playoff spot. The teams in the hunt as the calendar turns appear to be Calgary – a team with just two wins in their last ten games and more reasons for doubt than hope – and Minnesota.
The Wild are 8 points back of the Jets, but hold three games in hand. A home-and-home series between the teams could take the story in either direction, and despite a stellar two months with Paul Maurice behind the bench, the success of 2014 rests on Winnipeg’s ability to put Minnesota firmly in the rear view mirror.
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Mathieu Perrault enters tonight’s game with an 8 game point streak, during which he’s gone 5-4-9. He’s also 6-5-11 in his last ten games, which accounts for 65% of his total season scoring in less than 1/3 his total games played. It’s a streak to celebrate but not one that can last for a player who scored a career high 43 points last year with the league’s top scoring team with the help of some bounces.
Instead, we might focus on how Perreault’s success has rubbed off on now-linemate Mark Scheifele. Scheifele has 9 points in his last 6 games dating back to Buffalo, almost half his season total and a merciful end to what was starting to feel like a Sophomore slump. The explosion of offence has meant an average of 3.6 goals per game through December, raising the team’s season rank to an almost respectable 23rd in league scoring.
In an important divisional contest after 3 days of rest, the coach goes with rookie netminder Michael Hutchinson. If that’s not a holiday gift to the fans, I don’t know what is. We can see the defensive improvement of the team in Pavelec’s numbers – a .901 last year up to a .913 currently – but the fact remains that his would-be back up is making Pavelec look silly again this year. Much as Al Montoya managed a .920 in the same season Pavelec put up a .901, Hutchinson is posting a .944 during the best season of Pav’s career to date. The team defensive strategy is miles better, but so is any net minder not named Ondrej.
Despite injuries to the team’s entire top-4, the Jets bested Chicago for just the second time since the Thrashers moved north before the break by a stunning 5-1 margin. It’s no coincidence that the Jets’ scoring problems disappeared when Big Buf moved to the backend, and it seems 26 minutes a night from the Minnesota native is enough to keep the team on track.
A year ago Gary Lawless said the problem with the Jets was that Dustin Byfuglien was no Ryan Suter. Being a talking head isn’t a job for those with a long memory, but that’s why I’m here. I offered this refutation at the time, and I look forward to an intermission analysis that suddenly includes Byfuglien as a ‘game breaker’ and ‘logging big minutes.’ Better late than never.
- Parise – Granlund – Pominville
- Niederreiter – Koivu – Coyle
- Cooke – Haula – Vanek
- Carter – Brodziak – Fontaine
Despite all the ridicule of Thomas Vanek this season, he’s the third highest scoring forward with 20 points in 32 games while moving up and down the lineup. Meanwhile, Mikael Granlund has just 13 points, and Nino Niederreiter is a stunning -11 (I don’t care about +/- either, except in the extremes. The next worst number is -6 for Brodziak and then -4 for Haula – Nino’s an outlier).
Still, scoring goals hasn’t been the problem. Despite a 26th ranked powerplay, the Wild are 11th in goals scored per game and their lineup is filled with talent. Against type, the Wild can’t keep the puck out of their net.
- Suter – Brodin
- Scandella – Spurgeon
- Falk – Bickel
Both goaltenders sport an unsightly .901 save rate, and there isn’t much more the team can do to help them. Minnesota already boasts the fewest shots against per game at just 26.6.
As in seasons past, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are the class of this team. Suter has managed 22 points in his usual compliment of huge and difficult minutes. The smooth-skating Brodin is a whopping +13 in just 23 games. The rest of the group has its challenges. Keith Ballard (injured) is in the conversation for worst defenders in the Central and his replacement Stu Bickel is not an improvement. The team might be in a position where a couple wins against the Jets sets GM Chuck Fletcher into motion adding another defender at the trade deadline. But for now, they have to win with what they have and a 3-4-3 record in their last 10 isn’t inspiring.
Game-Day Prediction: The Jets are on a roll and despite the turkey break, come out against a Wild squad with a fatal flaw in net. The Wild don’t give up anything easily, and it will be another boring game of chipped pucks in the neutral zone. But on a heavy wrister by Mark Scheifele, a booming clapper by Buf, and a rebound shovel-in by Ladd, the good guys win 3-1.
Obvious Prediction: Michael Hutchinson looks calm all game and makes stopping the puck look less like a trapeze act and more like a day at the beach.
Not-so-obvious Prediction: Matt Halischuk reveals after the game that his favourite player is Nik Ehlers. The question only comes up after Halischuk tries to re-create Ehler’s rush through all 5 Russian skaters. In Halischuk’s case, it leads to the only Wild goal against as he catches his own team changing by giving it up. Not ironically, Halischuk loses his job to the same Nik Ehlers in 2015.