The Blue Jackets are looking to hit the All-Star break in style with three straight road wins, but their final stop on the trip could prove to be their greatest challenge. The Jackets head north of the border to take on the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets are one of the season’s most exciting stories, just four points out from the Central Division lead and tied with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s been a smoke and mirrors job for head coach Paul Maurice, one that will likely earn him heavy consideration for the Jack Adams Award at season’s end if the Jets maintain their current pace. Maurice has had strong production from his top-six, with five forwards in double figures in goals coming into tonight’s game, but he’s had to deal with injury problems that would make even Todd Richards give an understanding pat on the back.
Maurice was without top-four defenseman Zach Bogosian for a month with a lower-body injury, while his partner Tobias Enstrom missed six weeks with a lower body injury of his own. Arguably more devastating than both of those casualties is the absence of Jacob Trouba, last year’s rookie sensation on the blue line who has been out with an upper-body injury since December but could return Wednesday against Columbus. Mathieu Perrault, fifth on the team in scoring and coming off a four-goal game against Florida last week, will be out until at least the All-Star break.
Add all those injuries together and an ordinary first half from Evander Kane (9-9-18, also missed 15 games to injury) and it’s impressive where the Jets sit in the standings. Part of it can be attributed to a first line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan little, and Blake Wheeler that has combined to produce 47 goals in 47 games. The rest of the credit belongs to a goaltending tandem that is arguably Winnipeg’s strongest since the team moved there from Atlanta.
Ondrej Pavelec has posted his best save percentage and goals-against average to this point since the team’s last year in Atlanta. Overshadowing that body of work, however, is another dark horse chasing Fillip Forsberg for Rookie of the Year honors. Michael Hutchinson is having a terrific rookie season for Winnipeg and is threatening Pavelec for the full-time starting job.
Hutchinson’s 13 wins are one more than Pavelec’s total with 10 fewer starts. His goals-against average of 2.00 is third in the NHL amongst goalies with 20 or more starts, while his .932 save percentage is the best in the NHL among goalies with 20 or more starts. In the tight Central Division race, Hutchinson is 6-1-1 within the division, as well as 3-0-0 against the Blackhawks.
Columbus lost to the Jets on Nov. 25, their fourth loss in a six-game losing streak. Evander Kane scored two goals for Winnipeg en route to a 4-2 decision at Nationwide Arena.
Things certainly didn’t get off on the right foot for the Jackets when Bryan Little split the defense and moved in alone of Sergei Bobrovsky to give the Jets a 1-0 lead just nine seconds into the game. The Blue Jackets responded with Jordan Leopold’s first goal as a Blue Jacket, but the Jets would score twice in the second period 30 seconds apart to pull ahead. Ryan Johansen’s eighth of the season made it a game in the third period, and three goal posts throughout the game didn’t bounce the Jackets’ way. Kane’s empty-netter with 18 seconds left put the game away.
Brent Burns gets much praise for his versatility, but he’s not the only player who has shuttled between both ends of the bench and had success. Dustin Byfuglien became an impact player and a Stanley Cup champion as a winger with the Chicago Blackhawks, but after being dealt to the Jets (Thrashers at the time), his new employers thought his size and strength would serve them better on defense. He’s still had situational stints up front, but the now predominant defenseman has certainly been making the Jets front office look bright for the last few years. Byfuglien has 12 goals and 31 points this year, and he has put up 53 points or more in three of the last four seasons, only falling short with 28 points in 43 games during the lockout year.
James Wisniewski has quietly pushed his way back to the top of the Blue Jackets’ leaderboard for scoring, now ranking fourth on the team with 22 points. He’s coming off one of his best all-around games this season in the Jackets’ win against the Wild, a three-point night in which Wisniewski factored into every Blue Jackets goal, scored the game-winner, and saved that lead when Jason Pominville had an open net to shoot at late in the third period. Wisniewski has three goals and seven points in his last nine games. With Kevin Connauton serving as his defense partner, the Blue Jackets have an offensive blue line unit that gives them strong shooting options from the blue line.
Maurice vs. Richards
Wednesday night can serve as a coaching matchup between two bench bosses who have done a considerably good job this season. Maurice is drawing some Coach of the Year clamor for guiding his team through their injury-plagued December, while some similar chatter kicked up about Richards after he guided his team to a 10-1-1 December to get back into a reasonable playoff hunt. Each team is still injury-riddled, both coaches have very dependable top lines, and both coaches have needed to be creative to fill the holes left by prominent performers the rest. With the Blue Jackets a much better third period team and road team in recent games, the game might come down to matchup decisions in the third period and how well Maurice does to get the Ladd line away from Jack Johnson and David Savard. Look for a fun chess match between two men who have had to do a lot of thinking this year.