One month after their first visit to Montreal, they’re back, this time with their big guy in the lineup.
The Winnipeg Jets provide the Canadiens’ opposition on Sunday afternoon at the Bell Centre, and this time they’ll have Dustin Byfuglien with them, the guy they think of as their offensive catalyst as well as their biggest physical presence.
The Jets have scored even fewer goals than the Canadiens this season — 129 as compared to 134 — and have tallied just one regulaton-time goal in three straight games and four goals in regulation time goals in their last five games. As you’d expect, they aren’t winning much either: They’ve only gotten two regulation victories, two overtime victories and one shootout victory in their 15 games since the New Year. That’s 10 of 30 points.
Right now, the Jets are in 10th, five points behind the eighth place Devils, so they still have a shot at a playoff berth. Getting Byfuglien back and playing up to his capabilities could help. He’d been playing with a bad knee for a chunk of the season when he left the lineup right after Christmas. In the 16 games he missed, the Jets went 7-9, but they averaged 1.81 goals a game. Prior to that, they were averaging 2.77 goals a game. That’s almost a goal a game difference. Winnipeg was shut out three times and scored one goal four times in his absence.
The flagging offence wasn’t all due to Byfuglien’s injury, of course. Evander Kane, the Jets top goal scorer, went out with a concussion on Jan. 21. He remains out of the lineup and the Jets played four games without both Kane and Byfuglien.
It’s not as if Big Buff has put up big numbers. He’s only gone 6-19-25 in 37 games. But that was good enough for an All-Star selection and if you know how he plays, you know he makes things happen offensively with his ability to make a strong first pass and his heavy shot. Even having missed those 16 games, he’s still the Jets’ top scoring defenceman and tied for third on the team in assists. He’s gotten better defensively this season, too, with assistant coach Charlie Huddy teaching him some discipline.
Conditioning remains a problem for the 265 pound Minnesota native, however. He’s played around 25 minutes in each of the two games since his return. He had some jump on Thursday in Tampa Bay (banging bodies and registering an assist), not as much the next night against the Panthers.
As for the rest of the Jets, Blake Wheeler has had his struggles, first getting hit in the throat with a shot that caused him to miss two games, then returning just when Kane left the lineup. He’s gone pointless in five of the six games since his return. First line centre Bryan Little was slumping before Kane went down. He ended a 14-game goalless streak against the Panthers on Friday.
Captain Andrew Ladd has moved into Kane’s spot on the line with Wheeler and Little. He’s second on the team in goals with 16 to Kane’s 18.
Huddy has done a good job working with the Jets defence corps. The Thrashers surrendered 269 goals last season, most in the East and tied for second most in the league. This year, they’ve cut down their goals against significantly, from 3.20 a game to 2.65.
Some of that of course has been head coach Claude Noel’s system as well. And credit must go to unheralded goalie Ondrej Pavelec. His stats are somewhat deceiving (2.74 GAA and a .912 PCT.) but he’s kept his team in many games this year — and this is a team that does not do well when they fall behind. They’re only 2-13-1 when trailing after the first period. On the other hand, they’re 14-2-0 when leading after the first 20 minutes. Pavelec’s a big goalie, acrobatic and determined. He’s only 24, just a few days younger than Carey Price, and could be around for a long time.
Here’s how the Jets might line up on Sunday:
Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler
Kyle Wellwood, Nik Antropov, Eric Fehr
Tanner Glass, Jim Slater, Chris Thorburn
Alex Burmistrov, Aaron Gagnon, Antti Miettinen
Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom
Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart, Johnny Oduya