For being a random, Western conference matchup, when the Winnipeg Jets meet the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s always a game worth watching. Last year the Pens won the 2 games (combined score: 11-7), indicative of the two teams willing to play wide-open hockey and trade offensive chances and rushes. Not really sure WHY Winnipeg is willing and eager to run and gun with a team as talented as the Pens, but hey, good on ‘em for the entertaining hockey.
Pens/Jets has also had some extracurriculars with heavy hits (some legal, some illegal) and tempers going off the rails. Winnipeg has some big boys and they aren’t afraid to throw some weight around.
Last year in the first meeting of the year, Dustin Byfuglien boarded and staggered Justin Schultz, knocking him out of the game. Jacob Trouba lowered his shoulder and sent Carter Rowney eventually to the locker room with a big clean hit. Adam Lowry trucked Olli Maatta well after he played the puck, breaking the defenseman’s hand, knocking him out for almost 2 months. After all this abuse and no one capable or able to respond, Evgeni Malkin fired back with a high hit on Blake Wheeler in response.
In the second Pens/Jets game a few weeks later, Malkin answered the bell and answered Wheeler’s challenge to a fight. Little happened in it, more the point of giving a fight for a bad hit earlier. The game devolved further with Tom Sestito fighting Chris Thorburn and making a terrible hit on Toby Enstrom injuring him. Lowry fires back later trying to take a run at Malkin.
In many ways, the wildness of the Jets games last year showed why the Pens wanted Ryan Reaves. In an ideal world, after the Jets hit and injure Schultz and Maatta, Reaves would be able to settle the game, extract some retribution and hopefully the game can move on down the road without further escalation that Malkin poured on. It’s no perfect formula to decrease anger with more violence, but if you’re a Sidney Crosby or Kris Letang sitting on the bench and you see 2 or 3 of your teammates get hit on late or dangerous hits, it becomes a little easier to see why those type of star players appreciate and want someone on their bench like Reaves to have their backs.
So we’ll see if this game has any fireworks. On the surface, you’d think not this year- Winnipeg is only 29th in hits so far this season and they don’t have any fights either. Lowry, a rough and tumble player, is on IR and won’t be playing.
It would seem to be just a normal game, but memories are long and Winnipeg has one of the biggest rosters in the league. So maybe buckle up and put the foil on, just in case..
Winnipeg Jets (4-3-0) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (6-3-1)
Puck drop: 7:08 PM Eastern, AT&T Sportsnet, 105.9 The X
SBN Blog: Arctic Ice Hockey
Expected lines (from practice Wednesday)
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Conor Sheary
Bryan Rust - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Carl Hagelin - Riley Sheahan - Patric Hornqvist
Tom Kuhnhackl -Greg McKegg - Ryan Reaves
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Olli Maatta / Chad Ruhwedel
Ian Cole / Zach Trotman
—It seems Trotman will make his Pens debut tonight with Schultz and Matt Hunwick still down with concussions. Trotman, 27, has 67 career NHL games under his belt, all with Boston from 2014-16. At 6’3, 217 and a right-hand shot he’s got some good measurables so hopefully he can get through the game as needed.
—Frank Corrado has joined the team this morning, so he will be the depth defenseman or in Trotman’s spot above.
Last time out: The Jets defeated the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Friday night. Friday! They’ve been off for 6 days now, man this schedule this year just seems absolutely nuts for everyone
Lines: (per Left Wing Lock)
—The Pens probably catch a break in that Winnipeg has sent down skilled Nic Petan to the minor leagues. Veteran center Matt Hendricks is now off IR and expected to make his season debut (and his Jets debut too, for that matter).
—20 year old Kyle Connor is an interesting one to watch. The former 2015 first round pick has excelled in the AHL and is now getting a great shot to make the jump now in a top-6 role in the NHL. He played 20 games last year in the NHL, this year he’s got 2 points (1g+1a) in 2 games in the NHL.
—Brendan Lemieux (son of former NHLer Claude, both of no relation to Mario) just made his NHL debut in the last Winnipeg game. He’s only 21 years old and a 1st round pick in 2014, but I don’t know, to me it’s felt like he’s been a prospect forever.
—Just on paper, it’s doubtful any team in the league has a better right-side defense than Big Buff, Trouba and Tyler Myers. That’s 3 great right handed defensemen.
A solution in goal?
For years one of the biggest problem Winnipeg (and before that when they were playing in Atlanta) has faced was in the net and finding a consistent, quality goalie. They signed Steve Mason over the summer to a two-year contract, which seemed bizarre since he’s a very inconsistent goalie over his career. And he’s struggled early with a Niemi-esque stat-line (0-3-0, 5.98 GAA, .846 save %) so far.
24-year old Connor Hellebuyck has been a bit below average early in his NHL career, but that hasn’t been the case this year, he’s been awesome with pretty much the exact opposite line of Mason (4-0-0, 2.32 GAA, .927 save %). If Hellebuyck can be the answer to their long-sought question of finding a good goalie, there’s no reason the Jets can’t be a playoff team.
Interesting Thought: Pittsburgh has had so much success, going 16-3-0 overall against this incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The score difference is 82-48, which is 4.3 goals PER GAME for the Pens, which is just crazy.
Malkin has absolutely feasted on the Jets since they moved to Winnipeg, scoring 21 points (9g+12a) in 12 games. Kris Letang has 16 points in 10 games (3g+13a).