SAN JOSE — Less than two weeks ago, the thought of the Winnipeg Jets going on this two-game swing through California against Western Conference powerhouses and coming away with a clean sweep would have been absurd.
Even going into this week, the concept of keeping the score close against either team could have still been viewed as progress.
Yet, after a nail-biting, hang-on-for-your-life 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, the Jets are 60 (or 65 minutes) away from keeping their flawless record under head coach Paul Maurice alive.
Having said that, both Maurice and the players recognize that despite the good things they were able to show against the Ducks, they’ll need an even better effort to the Sharks.
After becoming the first team to knock off the Ducks on home ice in regulation time, it should be a walk in the park against the Sharks, right?
Well, not so fast. The Sharks have only two regulation losses on home ice and boast one of the best home-ice advantages in the NHL.
“These guys are going to present a lot of the same challenges that Anaheim did,” said Jets winger Blake Wheeler, who leads his team with 19 goals this season. “The system they play, they bought into that a few years ago and these guys play it extremely well, that’s why they’ve had so much success the past few years. For us, we’re going to have to try and play with a lot of speed and force these guys to play with us. We think that if we do that, we’re going to give ourselves the opportunity to create some chances offensively and to give us a chance to win the game.
“On the road, you always want to get off to a good start. The first period is really important. We’re going to try to come out with a lot of jump. We got off to a bit of a slow start in Anaheim but we rebounded pretty well.”
The Jets are 23-23-5, while the Sharks are 32-12-6.
Ondrej Pavelec is in net once again for the Jets. It’s his fifth consecutive start under Maurice and seventh consecutive overall.
When I asked Maurice if he expects to give Al Montoya a start on the weekend, given the back-to-back games against Toronto and Chicago, he said that was something they’d look “really, really closely.” I’ll be downright shocked if they don’t do it.
It’s just a matter of whether the Jets want Montoya to play the non-conference game against the Maple Leafs after a long day of travel on Friday or prefer to give him the divisional game in his hometown against the Blackhawks.
Speaking of goalies, Antti Niemi gets a rare night off as Alex Stalock is in goal. It’s Stalock’s 12th game overall and just his second start on home ice, but he’s having a great season (6-2, 1.80 GAA, .938 save %).
Back to the matter at hand, the Jets shutdown-plus unit of Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Michael Frolik is in for an incredibly difficult challenge in going up against the Sharks top trio of Joe Pavelski (27 goals, second behind Alex Ovechkin), Joe Thornton (league-best47 assists) and power forward Brent Burns (14 goals, 29 points in 37 games).
Little is riding a five-game point streak and it will be interesting to see if Sharks head coach Todd McLellan spends much time trying to get Thornton’s line away from Little and company.
Given the weight and speed of that line, it will be interesting to see how Zach Bogosian and Toby Enstrom fare against them as well.
McLellan has noticed a difference in the Jets play under Maurice.
“The biggest thing is that they look a little more confident,” said McLellan. “The eraser came out, it was a fresh start for a lot of players, from the goaltender on out. They haven’t had a significant amount of time to really change a large part of their game. I’m sure they’ve made some adjustments. They players just look like they’re a little more confident right now and winning does that for you. Usually you get that bump from a coaches change.”
Can that bump continue against the high-flying Sharks?
It won’t take much longer to find out.
The Jets are making one lineup change, inserting James Wright as the fourth-line centre for Eric O’Dell.
The fourth line got scored on midway through the third period on Tuesday, so the move isn’t a big surprise.
I asked Maurice why the move was being made and this is what he said:
“(Wright) was a hard guy to take out at the time,” said Maurice. “There were some technical parts about O’Dell’s game that we wanted to adjust. I really like having O’Dell in the lineup because he gives me some options for speed and skill up front. But this is an audition for those guys.
“I know (the fourth line) didn’t get back on the ice after the 3-2 goal the other night, but I didn’t bench them. There were nine minutes left on the clock and I knew how much my top three lines had played. I would have made the same decision if it was 3-1. I was cutting that line off.”
Here’s how we expect both teams to start on Thursday:
Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik
Evander Kane-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Devin Setoguchi-Olli Jokinen-Dustin Byfuglien
Chris Thorburn- James Wright-Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom-Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy-Keaton Ellerby
Ondrej Pavelec (Al Montoya)
Joe Pavelski-Joe Thornton-Brent Burns
Matthew Nieto-Patrick Marleau-Tommy Wingels
Bracken Kearns-Andrew Desjardins-Tyler Kennedy
Eriah Hayes-John McCarthy-Mike Brown
Matt Irwin-Dan Boyle
Marc-Edourd Vlasic-Jason Demers
Brad Stuart-Justin Braun
Alex Stalock (Antti Niemi)