It’s basically now or never for the Winnipeg Jets.
The deck is already stacked heavily against them in the chase for the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference standings, but a loss to the Dallas Stars on Sunday night would definitely be a crippling blow for the Jets, who will attempt to snap a six-game losing skid (0-3-3) as they close out a three-game homestand.
“Tonight is as important as any game of the year for both teams. There’s a big two points on the table. It’s a four-point game one way or the other,” said Jets defenceman Adam Pardy. “Tonight, we’ve got to dig down and find out who we are as a team and make sure we’re doing everything we can to win. Because if not, you really don’t know where it goes from here.”
You can’t explain the Jets’ situation much better than Pardy did right there.
Simply put, there’s just not much room for error for the Jets during these final 14 games, especially after falling 4-2 to the New York Rangers on Friday night in a game where they played pretty well but couldn’t solve Henrik Lundqvist after the first period.
Losing this one basically isn’t an option for them, otherwise they’ll essentially be in next-year country and/or fighting for pride/jobs.
Being eight points behind after tonight to a team that also holds two games in hand would basically mean the Jets would have to run the table the rest of the way. As it stands right now, they probably need 10 wins (possibly 12) to keep things interesting — which is a rather stiff test in itself.
It’s no secret the Jets will need to try and shut down or limit the Stars’ point leaders Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.
That responsibility falls on the line of Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik and the defence pairing of Zach Bogosian and Toby Enstrom, though Jacob Trouba and Mark Stuart will see some even-strength time against them as well.
“We’ll do a little harder match than we have run in the past and (he will make) a little earlier adjustment if you don’t like what you see,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “You’re not going to wait quite as long over the course of the game if there’s a match-up you don’t think is working.
“At the end of the day, we’ll start with the players we feel are best suited to play the game against that line. Then you have to make an assessment as the game goes if the first one is not working.”
Pardy spent one season with the Stars and realizes what Benn means to his team — something most of Canada came to realize when watching him during the Olympics in Sochi.
“Jamie is a great player, just look at the way he plays the game,” said Pardy. “It’s fast, it’s hard. The guy can score, the guy can make plays. He plays a big game. He’s really proven that the last couple of years. He did a great job with the Olympic team this year.
“We know what kind of player he is, we’ve definitely got to be watching him and taking away his time and space.”
Maurice wants his team to embrace the pressure of this playoff chase, not hide from it.
“How this works with me, as a coach you can’t possibly concede at any point, when you’re teaching your hockey team. You’re going to fight right until the very end,” said Maurice. “The smart guys take the pressure off their team, but we want to feel the pressure. I want our team to feel like this is a huge game, deal with all of the emotions that go with that, that nervous energy. It’s part of that process they have to go through.
“They know it’s a big game, I’m not going to open with that in my pre-game speech. ‘Hey fellas, this is a big game.’ We understand. We’re going to talk about how we enjoy these big games. You’ve got to get to the point in your life that you can find a way to enjoy it, to be excited about the size of the game. We want to be at our best tonight.”
It won’t take long to see if the Jets can get to that point before it’s too late this season.
The Jets have some new-look lines again tonight, thanks to a fractured talus (bone near the ankle) to Chris Thorburn that has him on the shelf indefinitely and a lower-body injury to Jim Slater that has him officially listed as day-to-day.
It’s the Slater injury that led to the recall of Patrice Cormier, who draws in on a fourth line that looks to include Eric Tangradi and Anthony Peluso (though Matt Halischuk is a possibility and we should know more after the pre-game warm-up).
The biggest change to the lines sees Eric O’Dell get a shot to play on a line with Evander Kane and Devin Setoguchi.
O’Dell has scored at the AHL-level so it will be interesting to see what he’s able to generate while playing with some more offensive wingers.
No doubt this is a big chance for him, one he seems to be relishing.
“That was my role down in St. John’s and it was a bit different getting called up here to play on the fourth line, kind of switch roles a bit,” said O’Dell. “I have a (knack) for the net and hopefully I can bring that tonight. You change your role a bit. But I just stick to my game and work hard. That’s what I was doing on the fourth line. My game is just working hard, battling in the corners and hopefully create some chances for those guys.”
As mentioned in my Sunday column, this is a big chance for Al Montoya. Many fans have been clamouring for him to get more starts and these next two games are massive tests — first against the team the Jets are facing and then on a back-to-back Monday against a St. Louis Blues club that leads the NHL in overall points (99) and was bolstered by the additions of Ryan Miller and Steve Ott prior to the trade deadline.
Michael Hutchinson spoke after the morning skate and he’s excited to have the opportunity to back up, something he did twice as a member of the Boston Bruins organization.
Hutchinson started the season in the ECHL but worked his way up to the starting job with the St. John’s IceCaps and has worked hard to earn this call-up.
Hutchinson got the news he was on his way to Winnipeg on Friday shortly after the IceCaps had their franchise-best nine-game winning streak snapped by the Portland Pirates.
“It was definitely a surprise,” said Hutchinson, who was 15-5-1 with two shutouts, a 2.33 GAA and .923 save % in 22 AHL games this season. “I was a little frustrated (after the loss), but it’s easy to forget once you get a call-up to Winnipeg right after the game. It helped me get over that game pretty quick.”
Hutchinson’s long road to the NHL this season is impressive, not many guys who start the campaign No. 5 on the depth chart get a shot with the big club.
“At the start of the season, I definitely wouldn’t have thought this was possible,” said Hutchinson. “I just tried to work my hardest and helped each team I’ve been on win games. Fortunately, it’s paid off so far.”
Hutchinson spent some time talking with head coach Paul Maurice and goalie coach Wade Flaherty on Sunday morning and is ready for whatever comes his way.
“I’m going to do everything I can. I’m not really expecting to get a shot, but if I do I’m going to try and be ready and do as much as I can to help these guys out,” said Hutchinson, who was a third round pick (77th overall) of the Bruins in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
I’ll have more on Hutchinson in Monday’s paper as my sidebar to go along with my game analysis column.
Colleague Kirk Penton will handle the Snapshots and the game-over web story.
The Stars have some strong Manitoba flavour, with Winnipeggers Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt playing roles on the second and third lines respectively.
Eakin draws back into the lineup on a line with Erik Cole and Colton Sceviour after blocking a shot with his foot and missing Friday’s game with the Calgary Flames, while Garbutt is an energy guy who plays a physical game.
Interestingly enough, Garbutt is third on the Stars in shots on goal, behind Seguin and Benn.
The third Manitoban on the roster, D Aaron Rome, looks like he’ll be a healthy scratch.
Here’s how I expect both teams to start:
Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik
Evander Kane-Eric O’Dell-Devin Setoguchi
Dustin Byfuglien-Olli Jokinen-Blake Wheeler
Matt Halischuk-Patrice Cormier-Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom-Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy-Keaton Ellerby
Al Montoya (Michael Hutchinson)
Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Valeri Nichushkin
Erik Cole-Cody Eakin-Colton Sceviour
Antoine Roussel-Vernon Fiddler-Ryan Garbutt
Ray Whitney-Chris Mueller-Alex Chiasson
Alex Goligoski-Trevor Daley
Jordie Benn-Brenden Dillon
Kevin Connauton-Sergei Gonchar
Tim Thomas (Christopher Nilstorp)