Fresh off three somewhat palate-cleansing barely-wins against the absolute dregs of the league at home in Buffalo, Arizona, and Florida, the Hawks face a far sterner test tonight in The Peg, where the Jets at least kind of look like they have finally gotten their shit together.
For seemingly a decade now, observers both at this publication and elsewhere have looked at the Jets roster, specifically the forward corps and more or less asked “What the fuck?”. And this was before Patrik Laine even arrived. But with Laine now in his second year, and Mark Scheifele proving that last season was not a fluke, the Jets have some genuine firepower up front, and the conversation hasn’t even gotten to Blake Wheeler yet, The Last True Power Forward. It’s well-worn territory at this point, but Blake Wheeler is simply a monster that cannot be contained on any tangible level. He’s 6’5″, 225 lbs, and fast and smart as hell. And while his goal scoring numbers are down this year (only 8, and 6 at even strength), and his possession metrics have fallen off the table from where they were (down to a 46 share after three straight years of 54+%), Wheeler has 30 assists in mid December as a winger, 14 of which have come on the power play. That’s called in The Old Country “outscoring your metrics”. The reason for the dropoff could be twofold, as the Jets are 4th in the league in scoring and have been playing with a lead more often than they have in the past, so score effects contribute a fair amount, but also the fact that for as skilled as Mark Scheifele is, he’s not completely interested in his own zone. But again, 35 points in 31 games will hide a multitude of sins.
As a 12 man grouping, the Jets’ bottom six are the forwards most the black on the attempts ledger, and one of them is Mathieu Perrault who always flips the ice, so he doesn’t really count anyway. The third line of Adam Lowry, Tanev The Younger, and Andrew Copp all are north of 53%, and even old hockey redass favorite Matt Hendricks is pulling his weight from the fourth line with a respectable 52 share. And when the top six boasts the finish of guys like Wheeler, Scheifele, Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and longtime blog favorite Bryan Little, they’re going to convert the chances they get.
On the Jets’ blue line, old friend Dustin “Dat Big Buck Guy” Byfuglien just hit injured reserve with a lower body injury, and somehow has gone goalless to this point in the year while being below water in attempts, so it’s arguable just how big a gap he’s leaving in the lineup (GET IT?). Toby Enstrom has also not played in a month, so the Jets are relying on some new faces around Jacob Trouba as a defensive corps. Trouba is paired with Josh Morrissey and His Arsenal, and the two of them are only at about a 48.5% share while facing the top units of other teams. Sabres castoffs Dmitri Kulikov and Tyler Myers form the second pairing, and Ben Chiarot and Tucker “I’m a Doctor Not A” Poolman make up the third. Among the three units, none of them are above water as pairings in shot attempts against.
In net, Connor Hellebuyck has gotten the bulk of the starts this year with Steve Mason only being cleared from a concussion on Monday. Prior to getting ding-y, Ma$e was supposed to be a bridge guy after two solid years in Philly for Hellebuyck to take his time to grow under after taking a step back last year in his sophomore campaign. But prior to getting hurt, Mason was flatly bad with a .904 overall and a .900 save percentage at evens on a team that was losing the territorial battle. That translated to a 3.44 GAA in just 8 games, which is no different from where they were in the Pavelectricity era. Hellebuyck has regained his rookie form and posted solid numbers in 25 games with a .920 overall and .929 at evens, and is a big reason why the Jets are where they are this year. Given the divisional implications of tonight’s tilt, it stands to reason that Paul Maurice will look for a softer landing for Mason and Hellebuyck will go tonight.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, while it certainly wasn’t emphatic by any means, they got the requisite six points against teams that they should have in theory stomped. Given the success of how things have gone, the lines figure to stay the same, with Richard Panik wrongfully still being left on the outside looking in. By any conceivable metric other than his shooting percentage, Panik is having a better year bouncing around the lineup this season than he did spending nearly the entire year with Toews, and yet transforming back into Richard Panik instead of channeling Mike Bossy has landed him in the press box. Here’s hoping it won’t be for long, as Panik brings a fair degree of size and snarl to the lineup as evidenced by every opposing player attempting to murder him after every single whistle.
The Hawk blue line will look different as well, with both Cody Franson and Jan Rutta getting hurt during the homestand, and truthfully both were probably due for some time in a suit anyway given how they’ve played. Rutta didn’t make the trip and Ville Pokka has finally been paroled after 3+ years in the Rock County Penitentiary, but that furthers frustration around these here parts at just how far down Michal Kempny has fallen in the depth chart. Corey Crawford gets his net tonight, because of course he does.
Given the state of both team’s blue lines, this one could end up having a break neck pace to it, with chances flying left and right, and both goalies seem up to the task. But the Jets have a lot more top end finish than the Hawks do these days, and they don’t need as many chances or as clean of looks to convert even if they can’t get the puck out of their own end at times. Furthermore there’s at least one game a year where the Hawks head up to MTS and get roundly pecker slapped, and this one has all the markings of such an occasion. Let’s go Hawks.
Game #32 Preview