ST. LOUIS — Morning folks, it’s almost time for the final Winnipeg Jets game before the Olympic break.
Standing between the Jets and for many, a warm-weather vacation, are the St. Louis Blues, a consummate powerhouse and one of the bona fide Stanley Cup contenders (did I mention they were my pre-season pick to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup final?).
In some ways, it’s hard to believe Game 60 is already here.
At the same time, the Jets have already dealt with a myriad of emotions during the first three-quarters of the 82-game campaign.
“It doesn’t seem like one year, does it? It feels like it’s been a long year already,” said Jets forward Blake Wheeler, who is among the four players on his team heading to the Olympics in Sochi after this contest. “Last year, with the lockout, was a taxing year, based on how often we were playing. Now with the Olympic break, it really hasn’t been much different this year. We’ve gone 60 games here playing nearly every other day. Guys have poured everything into it. There’s been a lot of emotional highs and lows, certainly.
“I think we’ve been reinvigorated here in the last month. We’re playing really well. There’s a direction. We’re pointed north right now and that’s exciting for everyone. We have realistic expectations of still achieving goals that we set out at the beginning of the year and with 20 games left, that’s really all you can ask for.”
A 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Thursday leaves the Jets with a 2-1 record on this trip. Finishing 2-2 would represent treading water, while a 3-1 swing would help the Jets continue the momentum they’ve been building since Paul Maurice took over as head coach.
“That’s what good teams do. They refocus, re-evaluate after a loss and they try to get better and improve,” said Wheeler. “You never want to let things fester, especially with such a long break between games. You never want to go two games without a win, but especially with a long break, you never want to lose two in a row.
“Going to Sochi is obviously on your mind, but it’s a really important game for us. We’ve been playing at a really high level lately. Everyone’s focus is going into the break on a high note.”
Maurice had this to say when asked about guarding against teams checking out early with the Olympic break so close.
“You’d like to think it’s the one good time you have fewer Olympians than the other. You got lots of Olympians, you’ve got a good hockey team. But that’s the challenge. So you just talk about it and address it as best you possibly can. It’s such an unusual thing, it’s not something you deal with every year. It’s kinda like that Christmas break in junior hockey where you get seven days off. But both teams are dealing with the same thing, right? It’s not a surprise, we knew this one was on the calendar so you want to go into it feeling good. Regardless, after that whistle blows everybody’s leaving,” said Maurice.
The Jets were loose in the defensive zone during the third period on Thursday, giving up three goals to blow a 2-1 advantage and it’s obvious they’ll need to tighten up against a Blues team that can both defend extremely well and has the ability to produce goals as well.
Maurice has seen marked improvement in the defensive zone since he took over on Jan. 12, even if it didn’t show up in the third period against the Capitals.
“It cost us the game last game. But I still think we’re a lot better off than where we were since the second practice, since the first day since we started working at it. It’s shown on video and it’s clear where the mistake was made… it’s not getting beat by 30 feet, it’s getting beat by a half step, it’s a stick on a puck and things like that,” said Maurice. “You try and set a foundation for a team that will carry. We’re not trying to fix one thing and then move on to the next. What are we going to look like? We believe we can score goals and eventually people, I hope, will talk about us being such a hard forechecking team and really difficult to play against. But our backbone is going to be what we do on our end of the ice. That’s where I think we’ve made the most improvement, but we’ve still got a long way to go. There isn’t a system that we run that we won’t eventually change. We’re talking about changing the attitude as much as anything else. Changing the terminology of how we teach it, video that we show and that attitude in which we try to attack. That’s where my focus is.”
UPDATE from pre-game skate: Based on Friday’s skate, the Jets wre expected to dress the same lineup they’ve used the previous four games, which would have meant Eric O’Dell, Zach Redmond and Paul Postma would be the healthy scratches.
I thought O’Dell might get a shot in this one and it looks like he will get one more shot here before the break. No sign of Eric Tangradi for the warm-up, so it appears O’Dell draws in on the fourth line here with Anthony Peluso and James Wright.
I still expect O’Dell to go down to minors with Redmond so they can get some game action in.
Keaton Ellerby didn’t take the warm-up either because he was feeling under the weather, so Postma will play his first NHL game since Oct. 26 against the Colorado Avalanche. He’s been out since that tie after doctors discovered a blood clot in his calf and will play on the third pairing with Adam Pardy.
Turns out Redmond wasn’t on the official roster sheet, so he has already been assigned to the AHL. Guess we’ll see about O’Dell after the game.
Speaking of Postma, he was upbeat as he met reporters Friday to discuss his four-game conditioning stint with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
“This kind of brings back memories (from initial diagnosis). When you’re not able to do what you’re normally capable of, you realize how much you miss it. I really missed the game and I also missed being around the guys and the team atmosphere. You don’t really feel like you’re part of the team when you’re on IR for such a long time. It’s just really nice to be back,” said Postma, who was given the news in St. Louis in late October.
As for his play with the IceCaps (one goal, six points), Postma was encouraged by how things went after shaking off the rust of not playing for several months.
“It was good. The first couple of games were a little bit rusty but I felt good as far as skills and speed. It was just my endurance wasn’t quite there. That was something that came to me over time and I’m feeling pretty good right now,” said Postma “A lot of the roster is still the same from when I used to play there, so there were some familiar faces. The systems are still pretty much similar to what I’m used to. Once I got down there and got comfortable, it was pretty easy.
“At first, I just kept things pretty simple, just advancing pucks, getting my shots through and being strong on my battles. Once that kind of took over, I just let myself play. Don’t think too much and just skate, move the puck and do what I can.”
I wrote a sidebar on Postma as part of my package in Saturday’s paper (available online at www.winnipegsun.com), but here’s a couple quotes I couldn’t squeeze in due to space constraints.
I also had a column on the Jets’ quest to find an identity and a notebook that included several nuggets.
This is the fourth meeting of the season between the Jets and Blues. The Jets won 4-3 in a shootout on Oct. 18, but the Blues won the other two meetings, 3-2 at Scottrade Center on Oct. 29 and 2-1 at MTS Centre on Dec. 10.
The Jets will need to pay close attention to Winnipegger Alex Steen, David Backes, Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie and speedster Jaden Schwartz, while also contending with the Blues defence corps that just might be the deepest (and best) in the NHL. If it’s not the best, it’s in the Top-3.
The Blues are going with Brian Elliott in goal, while the Jets counter with backup Al Montoya, who has been razor sharp in his past two starts, turning aside 64 of 66 shots.
Montoya’s been great this season and is set to make his 15th start. With 20 games left in the season, Montoya is tracking to hit those 20-plus starts I predicted for him going into the campaign.
This is another important start for Montoya. He’s already earned the trust of his teammates and Maurice has seen him post wins over the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens, on the road.
Maurice said if Montoya keeps it up, the frequency of his starts will become a little more regular.
There’s competition in the crease and with the Jets in a battle for a playoff spot, perhaps that battle will bring out the best in both Montoya and Ondrej Pavelec.
Only time will tell.
I mentioned the other day how the Jets missed an opportunity the other day to move into the final playoff spot in the West and thanks to a 2-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, the Phoenix Coyotes now hold that spot (vaulting past the Vancouver Canucks).
The Jets are three points behind the Coyotes (who will visit MTS Centre on Feb. 27 in the first game after the Olympic break) going into Saturday’s action. The Coyotes play today, but will still hold two games in hand when NHL games resume at the end of the month.
Here’s how I expect both teams to start this afternoon:
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
Al Montoya (Ondrej Pavelec)
Alex Steen-David Backes-Jaden Schwartz
Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Vladimir Tarasenko
Magnus Paajarvi-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie
Chris Stewart-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jordan Leopold-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott (Jaroslav Halak)