As the Hawks stay in the snow blasted prairies of the Midwest, they take their road show to the MTS Center in downtown Winnipeg, where they hope to actually win a game against the Jets this season in their last head-to-head meeting of the regular season.
Since the last meeting against the Jets wherein the Hawks blew their second straight third period lead after having not done so in nearly two full seasons, the Jets have very much been the Jets, winning in St. Louis and Dallas, but losing in Colorado and at home to the Wild. If the Jets got to play 82 games against the Hawks, they’d go undefeated, but they don’t, so they end up tripping over their own dicks quite a bit and hovering on the periphery of the Western Conference playoff picture. At present they’re six points out of the final wild card spot, with Calgary and yes, the Canucks in between them and the post season. The Jets have a deeper, faster, and larger forward contingent than either of those teams, and most teams in the west. They are the only team in the league that has four forwards above 40 points. Mark Scheifele has made THE LEAP to being a legit #1 center (at least from a scoring standpoint) in the league, Nikolai Ehlers is having a breakout season, Patrik Laine is proving to have one of the best shots in the game, and Blake Wheeler remains the premiere and prototypical power forward, driving possession with any linemates. And that’s before getting to Bryan Little, who would likely join them in the 40 point club had he not missed had he not missed 23 games (he has 29 points in 33 games). And yet rock headed Jim Benning’s boys are ahead of them in the standings by virtue of games played.
And while the blue line is far from complete, they aren’t exactly helpless either. Jacob Trouba still has all the tools in the world to be a true #1, and if not in Winnipeg, then somewhere. Dustin Byfuglien undoes a lot of his offensive talent by simply not giving a shit in his own end, but generally outscores those deficiencies and is the only Jet rearguard regular in the black in terms of possession. His partner could not be more ideally suited in Toby Enstrom, who along with his comically long stick play a very solid free safety when healthy. They’ve even gotten a fair amount of production over the last of the famous international playboys, Josh Morrissey, who has 13 points and is above water in his first full season in the show. Ben Chiarot and Paul Potsma are just guys, but they’re not abjectly terrible.
Part of the problem might be in net, as Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t grabbed the Jet crease by the nuts as it had been foretold in the prophecies, sporting a .909 overall and .916 at evens, which is down from his .938 5v5 last year in 26 games played. And because the Jets don’t get much in terms of possession when Blake Wheeler isn’t on the ice (55.33% to 46.93%), that save percentage is going to undo quite a bit. Of course, none of this has prevented him from throwing a .961 in the four games this season versus the Hawks.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, despite their best efforts, they actually managed to beat the Minnesota Wild for the first time in nearly two calendar years in the regular season. In doing so they have managed to keep themselves relevant in terms of the central division if at least through the end of tomorrow night, after which they will be on a league-mandated bye week, and those games in hand that Minnesota has will be burned through. There is little risk that either the Preds or Blues will catch the Hawks for first round home ice, but there is zero reason to tempt fate, even if they are 0-fer against the Jets so far this year.
Marian Hossa missed this morning’s skate but figures to play, still toiling on Marcus Kruger’s line until there’s some kind of help found at left wing on the top line. On Wednesday the line of Schmaltz, Panik, and Toews was certainly very active against the division leading Wild, though they weren’t staring down known irritant and Toews Kryptonite Mikko Koivu for much of the game. Neither of those two wings is any kind of a long term solution with Toews, but tonight will be a good opportunity to see just how strong on the puck Schmaltz can be in a real scoring role, as the Jets certainly do not lack in size anywhere on the ice.
Corey Crawford gets the net again tonight, which is a slight upset considering just what the Oilers are capable of when RUN CMD is on the ice and looming on the schedule tomorrow night. But with the week off coming, it will not be a surprise to see Q go back to back with him in these games and get a little points-chasey, as the last time Darling got the nod was surrendering 3 goals in about 8 seconds to these very Jets right before the all-star break.
The effort level tonight depends on how much each of these teams are fooling themselves about what their post-season trajectories are as it relates to the division. The Hawks need as much home ice as they can get but it might be out of reach, and the Jets need everything they can get, unless they’re actually trying to get Paul Maurice fired, which is a very real possibility. Either way, there shouldn’t be a lot of surprises at this point between these two, the Hawks just have to hope for the dam to break in net, despite the fact that it hasn’t in two seasons against three different goalies against the Jets. Let’s go Hawks.