Jets and Hurricanes set for first battle of the season

- February 4th, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. — Judging by the comments of players and coaches on both sides, it should be an extremely high-tempo game when the Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes meet tonight at PNC Arena.

The two clubs are familiar with one another from their days as Southeast Division rivals, but this is just the first of two meetings this season.

Both clubs are playing well of late (Jets have won eight of 10, Hurricanes have won six of eight) but both remain on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff line.

“They’re a fast team and they play really well in this building, so we’ve got to make sure we’re doing what we do — keeping our speed, forechecking well and taking care of our D-zone, which we’ve been doing really well lately,” said Jets defenceman Adam Pardy. “We’re worrying about what we do. We’re trying to get better and trying to move ahead, trying to climb these standings here.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the goalie battle will feature Ondrej Pavelec getting back in for the Jets and Anton Khudobin going for the Hurricanes.

Many people are up in arms that Jets head coach Paul Maurice isn’t going back with Al Montoya after another excellent performance on Sunday, but Pavelec is the starter on the time and it’s the job of the backup to give his team a chance to win games when called upon.

As I’ve said earlier in the week, I expect Montoya to start either Thursday against the Washington Capitals or Saturday against the St. Louis Blues (my gut says Thursday against the Caps and Pavelec gets the divisional game against the Blues in a final tune-up before the Olympics).

So there is some level of competition at the goalie position, but let’s not forget that Pavelec is the No. 1 guy and is 6-2 under Maurice and one of those losses was 1-0 to the San Jose Sharks.

This is an opportunity to see if Pavelec will be spectacular like he was in the first five games under Maurice or closer to mediocre as he was in the past three starts he’s made.

Historically, Pavelec has struggled against the Hurricanes, going 6-7-2 with a 3.64 goals against average in 16 appearances.

Despite the many improvements for the Jets since the arrival of head coach Paul Maurice on Jan. 12, the power play has been an area of concern and is currently stuck in a rut of 0-for-9 and 2-for-22.

What has Maurice seen from the power play of late?

“I’ve stopped watching it,” Maurice deadpanned when I asked the question this morning. “You can only focus on a handful of things at a time. Power plays are important, I understand. But you are capable of having success without it. We’re trying to build something off it. I’ve liked some of the chances we get in a game, but I’m still learning about getting the right personnel together in the game. We’re working on it.”

Maurice is planning to continue working on the power play, but there are more pressing concerns on his to-do list right now.

That’s understandable, but you can be sure Maurice has notified his power-play units that the Hurricanes are a dangerous team when they’re a man down, as they lead the NHL in shorthanded goals (with nine).

Home-ice advantage hasn’t meant much lately when these two teams get together, as the road team has won 16 of the past 22 meetings.

Keep your eyes on Jets centre Olli Jokinen this evening, as he’s averaging a point per game in 59 career games (27 goals, 37 assists) against the Hurricanes.

Another thing to watch is the battle in the circle as the Hurricanes are tied for 7th in the NHL (at 51.5%).

Former Jets D Ron Hainsey came by to say hello to a group of Winnipeg reporters and broadcasters after the morning skate for a quick chat, then had a scrum that lasted fewer than three minutes. I used many of his answers in my pre-game tee-up story at www.winnipegsun.com.

If Hainsey is fired up to face his old team, he hid it well this morning — just like Maurice did yesterday.

Hainsey said the Hurricanes have been a good fit for him, as he signed as an unrestricted free agent after Joni Pitkanen suffered a season-ending heel injury.

He’ll play on the ‘Canes second pairing with John-Michael Liles and has been averaging more than 21 minutes per game, similar numbers he posted as a member of the Jets the previous two seasons.

I realize that Hainsey rubs many people the wrong way, but I appreciated his candour during his time with the Jets and see the value in his game. As I’ve said before, on a Stanley Cup contender he’s probably a third pairing guy but he’s smart and he can skate. That’s why he’s been a valuable member of the Hurricanes this season.

Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller is certainly happy with what he’s brought to the room and how he’s played on the ice.

One of the keys to the Hurricanes turnaround has been the play of Khudobin and Muller provided this nugget about him this morning:

“He’s a character, a mystery,” said Muller. “The fans love him and it’s nice for reporters because he doesn’t give the typical hockey answers. He’s colourful, he’s got a unique personality but he loves to compete. He’s been a competitor and it was great to see him rewarded yesterday.”

Khudobin, who was named the NHLs first star for January, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and he believes he can be an NHL starter, so it will be interesting to see how much he plays during the stretch run as Cam Ward has returned from a lower-body injury.

No matter how things play out, Khudobin is well-positioned for a pay increase (he makes $800,000 this season) and is showing he deserves at least a shot at a starting gig, whether it’s with the Hurricanes or elsewhere.

Speaking of guys who were great in January, Hurricanes winger Alexander Semin found his offensive groove, picking up eight goals and 13 points. With the Olympics right around the corner, the Russian team will be happy to see that Semin has seven goals during his past eight games after producing only six in the first 34 games. He has 13 goals and 28 points in 42 games after signing a lucrative contract extension last season.

The Jets will also have to deal with some serious size down the middle in matching up against Eric and Jordan Staal, while pint-sized wingers Jeff Skinner (23 goals to lead the team) and Nathan Gerbe (12 goals, 26 points) bring plenty of offensive creativity to the table.

One other note about Jets prospect Eric Comrie, who was named Western Hockey League goalie of the month after going 8-2-0-1 for the Tri-City Americans in January with a 1.35 goals against average and .962 save percentage. Think he’s hungry to show he deserves to be Team Canada’s starter at the World Junior Hockey Championship next year?

Comrie, the 59th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, is 23-17-5 with a 2.29 goals against average and .932 save percentage in 45 games this season. Not letting the disappointment of being passed over for Team Canada affect his play is something you can be sure members of the Jets’ management team have taken note of.

The fact Comrie already has 45 appearances while coming off hip surgery is also a good sign.

Just a quick programming note, I will be appearing on the arena cam today at 4:40 CT on the NHL Network to discuss the Jets’ turnaround.

Here’s how I expect both teams to start on Tuesday:

Jets

Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik
Chris Thorburn-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Devin Setoguchi-Olli Jokinen-Dustin Byfuglien
Eric Tangradi-James Wright-Anthony Peluso

Toby Enstrom-Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy-Keaton Ellerby

Ondrej Pavelec (Al Montoya)

Hurricanes

Jiri Tlusty-Eric Staal-Alexander SEmin
Jeff Skinner-Jordan Staal-Elias Lindholm
Nathan Gerbe-Manny Malhotra-Patrick Dwyer
Drayson Bowman-Riley Nash-Tuomo Ruutu

Andrej Sekera-Justin Faulk
Ron Hainsey-Jean-Michael Liles
Jay Harrison-Brett Bellemore

Anton Khodobin (Cam Ward)

Categories: Hockey

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