It is an odd twist of fate that the team that used to house its top prospects here in Winnipeg will become the last NHL team to play a game at MTS Centre.
But here it is, the Winnipeg Jets host the Vancouver Canucks on Friday night and since it’s a national TSN broadcast, the game starts at 7:30 (presumably to give the folks on the left coast a chance to get home to watch because of the two-hour time difference).
Both clubs are coming off losses — the Jets fell 4-3 to the Nashville Predators and the Canucks lost 5-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks and 4-2 to the Edmonton Oilers in their past two games — so the intensity level should be heightened, especially since the Canucks (27-19-9) hold an eight-point lead over the Jets (25-25-5) in the Western Conference standings and currently own the final playoff spot.
“First and foremost, the points are absolutely huge,” said Jets defenceman Adam Pardy, who saw plenty of the Canucks during his time with the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars. “You look at those points (the Jets lost) against Nashville and those could be a difference-maker come April 10. But we’re going to lose games, that’s reality. We’re not going to dwell on it.
“It’ll be a good test for us. We’re obviously in a dog-fight trying to climb in the standings, we need every point we can get and tonight is going to be a grind, no matter what. We’re prepared for that challenge. I’ve seen this team quite a bit over the past five, six years and developed a bit of a hate for them.”
Now to the housekeeping: the Jets are making one lineup change as Eric Tangradi replaces Eric O’Dell, who became a father on Thursday and is due to rejoin the team on Friday afternoon.
This is Tangradi’s first chance to play for head coach Paul Maurice after missing eight games as a healthy scratch. Can he show enough to earn a more regular turn in the lineup?
“It’s been a long break since my last (game). I was able to use that time to get stronger, faster and work on some things,” said Tangradi, noting he’s got some jitters like he did when he played his first NHL game because of the lengthy absence. “I’m definitely looking forward to the opportunity and showing (Maurice) what I’m capable of. I just need to keep things simple early. Be physical, strong on the walls, use my skating to my advantage. If I do those things, those are the ways I’ve been effective in the past and I can be effective tonight.”
Tangradi was signed to a two-year, one-way deal during the off-season and was expected to play a physical game and chip in a bit offensively. That simply hasn’t been a regular enough occurrence, as Tangradi has a goal, four points in 36 games this season.
Maurice made it clear there’s an opportunity for Tangradi, as the fourth line has been a work in progress since he took over.
“Let’s bypass the keep your game simple, right in front of you, work hard and keep your shifts short, those are all (expected) but I want to see what he’s bringing to the table for our team,” said Maurice. “The energy on the bench, how does he make us better when he’s in the lineup? When all these new guys come in, that’s what you’re looking for. He’s been in the league a while, but he’s going to feel some focus tonight, some pressure.
“He wants to make a good impression, he wants to play well. Can he do that and can he also bring something else? Enthusiasm, energy, some physicality to the game. Be solid in his own end. All of those things. You always watch when a new guy comes in. What effect does it have on our group. What does he bring?”
Only Tangradi can answer that question, but with Jim Slater (sports hernia) and Matt Halischuk (fractured forearm) due to be back at some point after the break, time on the fourth line is going to be even tougher to come by, so he best be sharp in this one.
Ondrej Pavelec is back in goal for the Jets, which should come as no surprise, given his 5-2 record under Maurice.
The Canucks counter with rookie Eddie Lack, who got his pro start with the Manitoba Moose back in 2010-11, the final American Hockey League season here in River City.
“I always hope to get the start and of course, I still have some friends here and know everyone who works around the (Jets) team. There are a lot of friendly faces around here and it’s good to be back,” said Lack, who is 8-6-3 with a 2.18 goals against average and .922 save percentage in 20 games this season. “I’ve played a lot of good games here, but I’m sure I played a lot of bad games here too. I’m going to get out there and try to find my groove from the beginning.”
Lack actually got the win in relief over the Jets back on Dec. 22 after Roberto Loungo left the game with a groin injury, making 16 saves in a 2-1 win at Rogers Arena.
Luongo had this to say when I asked him about Lack this morning:
“He’s been great,” said Luongo. “He’s had to step in a couple of times with injuries of mine and he’s done a great job. He’s kept us in pretty much every game that he’s played. You couldn’t ask for more from a guy like that coming into his first year in the NHL.”
Unfortunately, since the Canucks have four more games left after tonight, Luongo wasn’t really interested in discussing the upcoming Sochi Olympics.
“Obviously, it’s exciting but we still have one week left and some important games coming up for our team. Right now, it’s really on the backburner for me,” said Luongo, who backstopped Canada to a gold medal in 2010 and is a front-runner to be the starter once again, with Carey Price and Mike Smith also in that mix. “I want to focus on making sure (the Canucks) get as many points as possible before heading over there.”
Luongo did take some time to reflect on the 1999 World Junior Hockey Championship, as he was in goal when Russia defeated Canada in overtime in the gold-medal game on a goal from Artem Chubarov, a centre who went on to play for both the Moose and Canucks before heading back to play in the KHL.
“That was the last time I was here, so it’s been a while,” said Luongo. “Some great memories and obviously, a disappointing finish. It was an exciting time for me. I don’t remember much about the city, which is weird. I guess I was in my own bubble back then.”
There are five other Canucks who spent time with the Moose and will be in the lineup: centre Ryan Kesler, winger Alexandre Burrows, winger Jannik Hansen, centre Jordan Schroeder and defenceman Alex Edler.
“This is where I got my start and I have some good memories from here,” said Kesler. “I was very young and I don’t remember much, to be honest. I remember playing my first pre-season game in Winnipeg Arena.”
Many of those former Moose players were catching up with familiar faces inside MTS Centre on Friday, including Jets chairman Mark Chipman.
Burrows is coming off a broken jaw and has no goals and just three assists in 23 games this season, though he’s keeping his spirits up.
“It’s fine. You get through some adversity and that’s how you get stronger and better,” said Burrows. “That’s the way I look at it. Stay positive and keep working hard. Sometimes, things don’t go your way but you have to stick with it and keep working.”
After predicting that Jets winger Chris Thorburn would snap his 50-game drought prior to last game, I have a sneaky suspicion that Burrows bulges the twine tonight as well.
Kevin Bieksa (foot) and Chris Tanev (hand) also got their professional starts with the Moose but are out of the lineup due to injury.
Winnipegger Dale Weise is a “game-time decision” according to Canucks interim head coach Mike Sullivan, who will coach his final game before John Tortorella returns from his two-week (six-game) suspension.
The Canucks will be without centre Henrik Sedin, who skated this morning and hopes to return to action at some point during this five-game road trip before the Olympic break.
Here’s how I expect both teams to start Friday:
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 Monotya)
Daniel Sedin-Ryan Kesler-Zack Kassian
Chris Higgins-Jordan Schroeder-Alex Burrows
David Booth-Brad Richardson-Jannik Hansen
Kellen Lain-Zac Dalpe-Dale Weise
Jason Garrison-Alex Edler
Dan Hamhuis-Yannick Weber
Ryan Stanton-Frank Corrado
Eddie Lack (Roberto Luongo)