Who: Winnipeg Jets (27-14-1, 55 points, 2nd place Central Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (21-13-6, 48 points, 5th place Metropolitan Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh in the Western PA viewing market, NHL Network outside of the local market, Sportsnet Canada for those up north
Opponent Track: Winnipeg was in action last night, winning 4-2 up the road in Buffalo. The Jets had a five-game winning streak broken on Tuesday night in Detroit. This is the third and final game of a quick trip to the East for them.
Pens Path Ahead: The Penguins have played among the lowest games around the NHL currently, but that’s about to change. Tonight kicks off all the typical bad parts of an NHL schedule. It’s the: first of a back-to-back, the start of a three games in four days, and four-in-six and all the other unpleasantries that come with lots of games in a short amount of time. Pittsburgh doesn’t have two consecutive days off until the All-Star break at the end of the month, playing nine games over the next 15 days. After tonight comes a trip to Raleigh for tomorrow’s game against the first place Carolina Hurricanes. Then the Pens come back to Pittsburgh to host Anaheim on Monday, before having a Wednesday-Friday home-and-home with Ottawa next week.
Season Series: The Pens already did their penance by making the trip to Winterpeg this season, taking a 3-0 win on back on November 19th. Tristan Jarry made 32 saves in the shutout victory, Jason Zucker provided the game’s first goal in the third period, and Sidney Crosby tacked on two assists on the final goals.
Hidden stat: Winnipeg’s 26 wins matches their franchise best through 41 games, tying the 2018-19 team.
Getting to know the Jets
SB Nation counterpart: Arctic Ice Hockey
Kyle Connor - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Nikolaj Ehlers
Cole Perfetti - Mark Scheifele - Blake Wheeler
Morgan Barron - Adam Lowry - Karson Kuhlman
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby - Kevin Stenlund - Sam Gagner
Josh Morrissey / Dylan DeMelo
Brenden Dillon / Neal Pionk
Dylan Samberg / Nate Schmidt
Goalies: David Rittich (Connor Hellebuyck played last night in Buffalo)
Scratches: David Gustafsson, Ville Heinola, Kyle Capobianco
IR: Mason Appleton, Logan Stanley, Saku Maenalanen
—Appropros of nothing, but 6’6” Blake Wheeler has the broadest shoulders of any human being that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I honestly don’t know how he walks through standard-size doorways. Anyways, Wheeler also suffered a very gruesome, very, very bad injury to his “no no zone” earlier this season after being struck by a slapshot in the one place that any man absolutely does NOT want to be hit by a puck traveling 75+ miles per hour.
—Ehlers got hurt in October and has been out until recently, but has comeback with a vengeance. Ehlers has seven points in four games (2G+5A) since returning to the lineup.
(Does not include last night’s game)
—It’s easy to notice a lot of similarities in Kyle Connor and Jake Guentzel’s games. Connor is a touch bigger, and perhaps even a little more of a dynamic/stronger of a skater but the way both end up putting the puck in the net at a 40ish goal rate without truly over-powering skill sets is very similar to showcase an excellent hockey IQ and possess that special scorer’s touch. If an Olympic type event ever happened again for NHL players, I bet they would fit in really well for Team USA as a pair of wingers on a line.
—Connor is also on an eight-game point streak (14 points, 6G+8A) and is in the top 10 in NHL scoring. But, in the for what it’s worth category, Connor only has 1G+2A in nine career games against the Penguins.
—Sam Gagner just crossed the 1,000 game career milestone and it’s been a strange journey. Only 33-years old, it feels like he’s been around forever (which he has in a playing sense, making his debut in the 2007-08 season), and also kinda like he hasn’t been a factor in a long time too with some AHL time along the way and bouncing around various different NHL teams (Winnipeg is his seventh different NHL team, to go along with two stints in Edmonton as well).
Givin’ ‘em Hell(ebuyck)
Connor Hellebuyck has long been one of the NHL’s top goalies, but he’s upped his game even further to have a career-best type of season statistically this year at age 29. Hellebuyck is the best goalie in the league this side of Linus Ullmark. Hellebuyck has the second best GSAA in the league, a great save% and is the majority of the reason that Winnipeg has the strong record that they do. Pittsburgh may have lucked out, Winnipeg is on a back-to-back and played Hellebuyck last night.
Veteran coach Rick Bowness has done a great job fixing the culture and the defensive issues in Winnipeg in his first season. As Ken Wiebe at Sportsnet wrote:
After taking the job, Bowness made a series of calls to players, identifying areas that needed improvement and then went to work on looking for solutions – which has been a constant theme since his arrival and one that will continue throughout the final 41 games and beyond, provided the Jets qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Good teams, you have to be resilient. You have to find different ways to win and you have to have different guys contribute,” said Bowness. “There were a lot of challenges, clearly, with the team. Get them on the same page, get them away from the distractions that were around the team in terms of the culture; we’ve had to fix that, first and foremost. You’re not going to fix the X and Os on the ice until you fix the culture. The culture wasn’t nearly as bad as perceived, that was a help, but there were a lot of things we had to do on the ice in terms of tightening things up.
“You miss the playoffs when you try to win every game 5-4; you miss the playoffs in this league. I thought we were making good strides for a while, then the injuries hit and the schedule hit. We lost a little bit of the way we were playing. We’re going to get it back now that the line-up is back. We’re happy where we are, knowing we’re going to keep getting better.
The Jets have dealt with some key injuries, but persevered with some added attention to detail, a strong PK and it doesn’t hurt to have one of the top goalies in the world backing them up.
At even strength, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh match up as contrasting images. The Pens are better offensively than defensively at 5v5 play, the Jets are almost the complete opposite. That will make for an interesting styles clash at both ends of the ice.
A key might be the difference in finishing: that could give the Jets an edge, even if they don’t create a lot of shots or scoring chances, they have been better at converting.
And now for the Pens...
Potential Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Jason Zucker - Omelette Boy - Rickard Rakell
Drew O’Connor - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
Danton Heinen - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Marcus Pettersson / Jan Rutta?
Brian Dumoulin / Ty Smith
P.O. Joseph / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Casey DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski
Scratches: Taylor Fedun
Non-Roster: Kris Letang (family leave)
IR: Jeff Petry (upper body, LTIR), Josh Archibald, Tristan Jarry, Ryan Poehling
—Oh gosh, we’ve officially reached that point of the season where Wilkes-Barre’s AAAA-quality veteran captain who is about five years removed from being NHL quality is needed in Pittsburgh. Always a troubling time.
—Jan Rutta missed practice yesterday with was called a maintenance day, an indicator he isn’t 100% but hopeful to play tonight. Petry was not on the ice and Letang has not yet rejoined the team either. The defense right now in Pittsburgh is a hot mess and with the scheduling about to ratchet up a notch, it’s not the best time for a thin depth chart of available players.
—Tokarski or DeSmith, who ya got making the start tonight? Presumably the other one who doesn’t play tonight will be playing tomorrow night against Carolina after Tristan Jarry also did not practice with the team yesterday. Maybe have the goalie they call “Ticker” in there tonight to ride his hot hand from last game to allow DeSmith the chance to play against division leader Carolina tomorrow? It’s yet unannounced which way Mike Sullivan will go with that decision, but that might make some sense.
—Sidney Crosby (1,457) is tied with Teemu Selanne for 17th place in all-time NHL scoring. With a big night, Crosby could even jump two players - Alex Ovechkin (1,458) is inactive tonight. The late, great Stan Mikita (1,467) is the next legend the two current players will be climbing up towards in the coming days and weeks.