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Jets host Avalanche in pivotal Central Division matchup

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG – It’s the biggest game of the year. A “must win,” according to Mathieu Perreault.

Jets. Avalanche.

Buckle up.

This is the fourth of five meetings between these two teams this season. The Jets have earned five of a possible six points so far, winning 2-1 (OT) on Oct. 26 and 6-2 on Dec. 5.

The Avalanche won the most recent meeting on Dec. 11 at Pepsi Center, 4-3 in a shootout.

“We’re expecting another close one,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said following Saturday’s practice.

In the latest instalment Sunday at MTS Centre, a playoff atmosphere is expected; two Central Division rivals battling it out for the extra inch that could be the difference come April.

The Avalanche, who are coming in on the second half of a back-to-back set, have been one of the hottest teams of 2015 so far. In 15 games, they’ve strung together a record of 8-4-3 for 19 points are suddenly back in the thick of it when it comes to the Western Conference playoff picture.

The Avs trail the Jets by seven points for the first of two wild-card spots, and are only four back of the Vancouver Canucks for the other highly coveted placing.

“I usually try to concentrate on the next (game), but you’re aware of it, of course,” Jets defenceman Mark Stuart said of the playoff race. “Whether it’s a divisional game or not, they’re huge points and we’ve got to grab those whenever we can. It’s nice to get two in our last two, but we’ve got to throw together some two-point games here.

“That’s our goal tomorrow.”

Ditto for the Avs, who have an uphill climb ahead of them.

“They’re a team that brings a lot of speed, a lot of offence to their game,” Stuart said. “It’s going to be a good one tomorrow.”

Alex Tanguay leads the Avalanche in scoring with 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in 50 games. Jarome Iginla, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Ryan O’Reilly and Nathan MacKinnon are not far behind, however, as all seven are separated by only five points.

“They’ve got lots of skill up front and they like to push that kind of (offensive) game,” Maurice said. “We’ve given up too many opportunities to score in recent games, so that will be the key for us tomorrow – limiting those chances against.”

The Jets are currently on a six-game slide (0-4-2), but have picked up points in consecutive games, dropping a pair of overtime decisions to the Vancouver Canucks (3-2) and Chicago Blackhawks (2-1). In each, the Jets allowed only 20 even-strength shots, dictating the pace by doing what Bryan Little described as “Jets Hockey” – a physical, in-your-face brand buoyed by speed, smarts and aggression.

Slowly, the team is getting back to what made it successful before the All-Star Break.

“We live and die on our energy level,” Maurice said, adding that the Jets “got back on the forecheck” after a quieter second period against the Blackhawks.

“We were hitting [in the second], but that’s not a great thing, that stat. It means you don’t have the puck as much as you’d like. In the third, we had more puck control, more zone time. We moved better and part of that was because we got on them a little more. We got pucks to the goal line got more control of the game because of that.

“We’re getting there.”

Neither team’s starting goaltender has been named at this point, but we can report that there will be no lineup changes for the Jets.

Here are the projected forward line combinations and defence pairings:

Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault - Mark Scheifele - Dustin Byfuglien
Michael Frolik - Adam Lowry - Chris Thorburn
TJ Galiardi - Jim Slater - Anthony Peluso

Toby Enstrom - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Jacob Trouba
Ben Chiarot - Adam Pardy

PP1

Ladd, Little, Wheeler, Perreault and Byfuglien

PP2

Scheifele, Frolik, Lowry, Enstrom and Trouba/Bogosian

— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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