Jets without Byfuglien as they host Avalanche

- March 19th, 2014

Not seeing Dustin Byfuglien on the ice for the morning skate on Wednesday didn’t create a lot of buzz among members of the media.

In season’s past, at this time of the season, Byfuglien had often skipped the skate and been ready to answer the bell come game-time.

Since the Winnipeg Jets played back-to-back games on Sunday and Monday and given that Byfuglien was removed midway through the third period of Sunday’s 7-2 win over the Dallas Stars for precautionary reasons because of a lower-body issue, it was assumed that the hybrid forward/defenceman was simply taking the morning off to be sharp for tonight’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.

But in our business, one can never assume, I asked Jets head coach Paul Maurice if it was a maintenance morning for Byfuglien?

“No, he’s not playing,” said Maurice. “We expect him to play Saturday. It’s a lower-body injury, day-to-day. I know that’s frustrating for you guys.”

But how frustrating is it for you? (a smart retort from a fellow media member)

“This isn’t something we’re trying to hide. Half of the hockey team, half of any hockey team is playing somebody with something that hurts. That’s the reason that it doesn’t get out there,” said Maurice. “I can tell you what (Mark Scheifele’s) injury or what Chris Thorburn’s injury is because they’re not going to play in pain, they’re going to play when they’re 100 per cent ready. Everybody else, with what it is, it doesn’t make their life any easier when they’re back on the ice.”

The loss of Byfuglien, who had appeared in each of the 70 games going into this one, is huge for the Jets, as he’s been playing some of his best hockey of the season, producing six goals during his past six games.

He’s been a physical force while playing forward and his ability to get his shot through from the point will certainly be missed. Look for Jacob Trouba and Toby Enstrom to try and pick up the slack in that regard. I was curious if Paul Postma might draw into the lineup on the third pairing so the Jets could use him on the second power play with Zach Bogosian, but it looked like Adam Pardy and Keaton Ellerby were both staying in based on this morning. That could change though.

UPDATE: Turns out Postma is in, as Zach Bogosian was a late scratch for the Jets with what the team Tweeted out was an upper-body injury.

Byfuglien’s absence means that Eric Tangradi draws back into the lineup and based on the line rushes, it looks like he’ll play on the left wing with Olli Jokinen and Blake Wheeler.

With Byfuglien out, there’s a good chance you could see some mixing and matching happening and with the Jets not back in action until Saturday night, this could primarily be another three-line game for the home side.

Some folks took to social media suggesting that Evander Kane should be playing with Jokinen and Wheeler. I would counter that Wheeler should be moved with Kane and Eric O’Dell.

Jokinen is having a solid bounce-back season, but he’s never really meshed that well with Kane, but Wheeler has on occasion and given how O’Dell has performed in more of an offensive role the past two games, I won’t be surprised if that trio gets a look at some point tonight.

There was plenty of talk about the speed of the Avalanche and how the Jets will try to contain it.

“Part of it is staying out of the box, you don’t want those guys on the power play. Just take away your time and space,” said Jets defenceman Mark Stuart. “As a defenceman, if you give them too much respect them too much, it’s going to end up hurting you. So you’ve got to stay on them and not give them too much room. Especially in the defensive zone. They’ve got some guys that are going to make plays and get shots off, but we’ve got to keep them to the outside.”

One of those speedsters, Olympic gold medalist Matt Duchene, has been outstanding in the season series, putting up four goals (two of them game-winners) and five points in the four games.

Another is rookie phenom Nathan MacKinnon, who has 23 goals (including eight on the power play and five game-winners) and 53 points in 69 games this season and is well on his way to capturing the Calder Trophy.

For the Jets, Blake Wheeler, who has one goal and 12 points in his past 15 games, has put up four goals and seven points in four games against the Avalanche this season.

In four previous meetings this season, all of the games between the two clubs have been decided by one goal, so it figures to be another tight one.

Speaking of tight games, the Avalanche have been excellent in one-goal games this season, going 23-4-5, which is impressive when lined up beside the Jets record of 17-12-9 in the same situation.

The other stark contrast between the two clubs is their record against divisional opponents.

While the Jets are 8-13-5 against the Central, the Avalanche are 17-6-2.

The Jets enter tonight’s action six points behind the Phoenix Coyotes and with only 12 games left in the regular season, the Jets realize they need to rattle off a long winning streak just to keep things interesting.

“We’re still in the hunt and that’s all you can ask for,” said Stuart.

Al Montoya makes his third consecutive start in goal for the Jets.

He’s already faced the Avalanche three times this season, going 1-1-1, with a 2.26 GAA and .933 save percentage, turning aside 97 of 104 shots he’s faced.

Maurice also said goalie Ondrej Pavelec and centre Jim Slater are making progress as they try to make their way back from lower-body injuries.

Pavelec was actually on the ice with goalie coach Wade Flaherty prior to the skate, so his injury doesn’t appear to be season-ending.

Maurice also hinted at a “positive thing” kept Slater away from the rink this morning.

The Avalanche lost 6-3 to the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Tuesday, so they didn’t have a morning skate on Wednesday

Head coach Patrick Roy is scheduled to meet the media at 4:45, so I’ll see what he says.

UPDATE: Roy said the Avalanche will be without centre’s Paul Stastny (back) and John Mitchell (back) tonight.

Stastny felt it was important to play in Roy’s return to Montreal, but he’s not quite ready to play on consecutive nights just yet.

Missing two men in the middle, MacKinnon slides back to his natural position of centre and defenceman Tyson Barrie will play forward. Paul Carey also draws into the lineup, but the line combos are a bit up in the air right now.

Roy is planning to stick with his plan of giving Reto Berra his first start with the Avalanche tonight against the Jets, noting that starting out on the road after a trade can be a bit easier at times.

Berra was outstanding against the Jets, making 47 saves in a 5-4 shootout win for the Calgary Flames over the Jets on Nov. 18 at MTS Centre. He was also between the pipes on Jan. 16 in a 5-2 win by the Jets at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

I asked Roy how he thought his team was handling the pressure of being involved in the stretch drive, as they battle with the defending Stanley Cup champions for second spot in the Central Division?

“Outstanding. Our guys have shown a lot of poise and played some sound hockey, made smart decisions,” said Roy. “Maybe too many turnovers in Ottawa (on Sunday), but we bounced back in the third. When we’re making our mistakes (goalie Semyon Varlamov) has been rock solid since the start of the year. He’s been our best player.”

Some folks were wondering why Varlamov wasn’t playing tonight after resting Tuesday, but Roy made it clear he didn’t want his puckstopper overworked right now.

“The most games he ever played is 53,” said Roy. “I just feel that going to 65, 68 games would be too much, especially going into the playoffs.Obviously, we’ve put ourselves into a good position in the standings and both goalies (including J-S Giguere) have been playing well all year.

“(Giguere) is from Montreal and I thought it would be a nice gesture by our organization to play him. We made a trade to get Berra and it’s a good opportunity for him to play.”

There was one other Jets nugget that came out late in the afternoon as prospect Connor Hellebuyck was named one of the five finalists for the Mike Richter award as the top goalie in the NCAA.

Hellebuyck, a fifth-round selection (130th overall) in 2012, led the nation in goals against average (1.87) and save percentage (.938) in 25 games during his sophomore season with the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks.

Here’s how I expect both teams to start this evening (will update any Avalanche changes after the warm-up):

Jets

Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik
Eric Tangradi-Olli Jokinen-Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane-Eric O’Dell-Devin Setoguchi
Matt Halischuk-Patrice Cormier-Anthony Peluso

Toby Enstrom-Keaton Ellerby
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy-Paul Postma

Al Montoya (Michael Hutchinson)

Avalanche

Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Tyson Barrie
Jamie McGinn-Matt Duchene-Ryan O’Reilly
Cody McLeod-Maxime Talbot-Marc-Andre Cliche
Patrick Bordeleau-Paul Carey-Brad Malone

Jan Hedja-Erik Johnson
Andre Benoit-Cory Sarich
Nick Holden-Nate Guenin

Reto Berra (Semyon Varlamov)

 

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