The Winnipeg Jets — or at least the original team using that name — last played in Montreal on Jan. 27, 1996, losing to the Canadiens 4-1. On Wednesday, the former Atlanta Thrashers, who now use that same name, begin a four-game road trip against the Habs.
The current Jets are not a great road team, just 5-8-4 away from home. But they are coming off a very strong month of December because of what they’ve done in Winnipeg. They played 12 games at the MTS Centre last month, winning nine of them. They now have 14 home wins, which is tied for the best mark in the entire league with the Blues and Blackhawks. Impressive company. Adding their road record in December, they picked up 21 out of 28 points overall for the month.
So this team is going in the right direction, but now we’ll see how much the road agrees with them.
It’s easy to forget the Thrashers were a pretty good team early last season, in the playoff hunt until collapsing in January and February. They still have the core of that team and seem to be learning how to win, at least in front of their own fans. Coach Claude Noel has said they’ll need to be a .500 team on the road to make the playoffs.
Right now, they are sitting in eighth in the East, eight points ahead of the 13th place Canadiens. In addition to winning at home, they’re doing it with a pretty young group and some surprisingly good team defence (their 107 goals against is the fourth best mark in the Conference). In December they allowed four goals in a game only twice and just seven goals in the last five games, four of them in one game, their only loss in the last five, to Pittsburgh.
“I’m really happy with the way we’ve defended, from our goaltender on out,” coach Claude Noel said. “Our team is becoming a really good checking team against heavy opponents.”
In goalie Ondrej Pavelec, they have a big, young goalie who can be spectacular on many nights and has three shutouts on the season thus far. He’s been playing well of late, going 4-2-1 with a 1.56 average and an outstanding .950 save percentage in his last 7 games. Even backup Chris Mason is having a strong season, 1.91 GAA and a .927 pct. in nine games.
The defence corps has played fairly well, too, especially because they’ve suffered from injuries. But the big difference in the Jets over the last month has been their forwards buying in to Noel’s system, which sees the wingers come back harder to control the gap in the neutral zone and down deeper into the defensive zone to outman opponents in their own end.
“We’ve done a good job taking everyone’s time and space away early,” defenceman Ron Hainsey, a former Canadien, said. “You can only do that if the forwards are really coming back hard and the D can stay up and try to cut teams off.”
At the other end, the Jets are getting great production out of Evander Kane, whose 18 goals puts him in the league’s upper echelon. He’s had a strong partnership with his line’s other winger, ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler, whose 22 assists likewise rank high. Their centre for most of the year has been Bryan Little, but he’s been out for the last six games with a foot injury, his spot recently taken by depth forward Tim Stapleton. There’s a chance Little, who has 11 goals on the year, could be back for tonight’s game; he was producing at nearly a point per game clip (17 points in 18 games) in the stretch leading up to his injury.
Captain Andrew Ladd, who played on Chicago’s Stanley Cup team, has a dozen goals skating on the second line with a pair of former Leafs, Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood.
Picking up veteran checker Antti Miettinen off waivers from the Wild last month indicates how the Jets are trying to enhance the depth of the team.
The big name on D is Big Buff, Dustin Byfuglien, but he’s a big scratch tonight, missing his fourth straight game with knee injury. He’s on the trip, but not likely to play for perhaps another week. Hainsey has spent two long stretches on the sidelines as well, but he’s back now.The cornerstone of the defence corps remains Tobias Enstrom, who quarterbacks the power play and leads the team in average ice time. He missed 20 games earlier this season with a broken collarbone.
The shutdown pair is young Zack Bogosian and former Devil Johnny Oduya, although Hainsey and Enstrom have been rather effective as well.
The Jets special teams are mid-pack, but their PK has been on the upswing lately, a combination of taking fewer penalties and doing a better job of killing the ones they get. Jim Slater and Little take many of the big faceoffs shorthanded while Bogosian and Mark Stuart see a lot of time as PK defenders.
Here’s how the Jets might line up against the Habs on Wednesday:
Evander Kane, Bryan Little or Tim Stapleton, Blake Wheeler
Andrew Ladd, Nik Antropov, Kyle Wellwood
Tanner Glass, Alex Burmistrov, Antti Miettinen
Eric Fehr, Jim Slater, Chris Thorburn
Zach Bogosian, Johnny Oduya
Ron Hainsey, Toby Enstrom
Mark Stuart, Mark Flood