AT THE MORNING SKATE
WINNIPEG – Buff is back.
All-star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien will draw back into the lineup tonight after missing the past nine games with an upper-body injury.
It’s a gargantuan boost to the Jets’ playoff hopes. The team comes into the night two points up on the Los Angeles Kings for the second of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference. A win tonight would extend the lead to four and pull them to within one of the top spot, currently occupied by the Minnesota Wild.
Byfuglien, who last played on Mar. 4 vs. Ottawa, will be paired with Adam Pardy. Jay Harrison will be the odd-man out on the blue line.
Further news on the injury front is equally as promising. Mathieu Perreault (lower body) skated in regular colours today and could be ready to play on Sunday vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. Bryan Little (upper body) and Ben Chiarot (hand) are next in line in the recovery bay and “could be available in the next two games,” according to Head Coach Paul Maurice.
“We’re quite hopeful that by Apr. 4, they would all be available to play.”
Perreault has missed 15 games; Chiarot, 13, and Little, nine.
“When he got injured, the private conversations in the coaches’ room [were that] we knew we were in real trouble,” Maurice said. “What we miss the most is that he’s got an excitement on the ice. He’s on the puck and is one of our hardest forechecking guys. We’re supposed to be this big, fast team and one of our strongest forecheckers was Matty Perreault. He’d get on the puck and wouldn’t come off it. He was one of our most effective guys and he has a fantastic set of hands.
“We do miss him and we’re excited about getting him back.”
Perreault has already tied a career-high in goals with 18 and was on pace for a new personal best in points at the time of the injury. He has 36 points in 56 games, needing eight in the final stretch to surpass his previous high of 43, set last season as a member of the Anaheim Ducks.
“It’s tough, but it’s part of the game,” Perreault said of being shelved in the middle of a career year. “This is the first time in my career that I’ve been out for so long. It’s unfortunate, but I’m happy now that it’s pretty much all healed up.
“I’ve been skating [with fellow injured players] for the last week or so and this was the first skate with all the guys. It feels good. I’m almost there. A couple more skates with all the guys and I’ll be good to go.”
As for who is in tonight, look for the Jets to roll with the following forward line combinations:
Andrew Ladd - Adam Lowry - Michael Frolik
Drew Stafford - Mark Scheifele - Blake Wheeler
Jiri Tlusty - Jim Slater - Lee Stempniak
Chris Thorburn - Eric O’Dell - Matt Halischuk
With the addition of Byfuglien on D, the defence pairings will look as follows:
Toby Enstrom - Tyler Myers
Mark Stuart - Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy - Dustin Byfuglien
The Montreal Canadiens currently sit atop the Atlantic Division standings with a 46-20-8 record and are the first team to crack the 100-point plateau this season. The Habs have the NHL’s top goaltender in Carey Price, but the league-leader in wins (40), goals-against average (1.88), save percentage (.937) and shutouts (nine) will get the night off. Dustin Tokarski will make his first start since Mar. 17 – a 41-save performance in a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers. The 25-year-old is 6-5-3 this season, along with a 2.66 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, but he has only one win in his last five starts.
The NHL’s reigning First Star of the Week, Ondrej Pavelec, will get the nod for the Jets, looking to extend his personal winning streak to six.
“They’re really defined structurally and how they play off each other,” Maurice said of the Canadiens. “There’s not a lot of easy ice. They’ll frustrate you with their quickness – and if you open that game up, they’re going to beat you.”
This is the second of two meetings between these two teams this season. Montreal won the initial encounter 3-0 back on Nov. 11 at the Bell Centre.
“They’ve had a good season,” Jets winger Blake Wheeler said.
Reminiscent of his days with the University of Minnesota, No. 26 is donning a full-face cage after taking a puck off the face on Monday night in Edmonton.
“A little plastic surgery never hurt anyone,” he quipped. “I feel good.”
Wheeler lost “a couple” teeth in the incident, but after an on-the-fly game of Operation, they’re back in the rightful place – for now.
“They were able to put them back in. We’re crossing our fingers that they stick. There are worse things than having to put a cage on your helmet. I’m just happy I can be out there to help the team.”
Cage and all, Wheeler tallied a goal – his 23rd of the year – in Tuesday’s loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
“It’s the same thing as always,” Wheeler said. “We need to make them work for everything they get. We want to frustrate them and force them into making some plays that they don’t want to make and try to capitalize on their mistakes.”
Puck drop goes at 7:00pm CT at MTS Centre.
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com