WINNIPEG -- Wins in the Central Division don’t come easy. Each victory comes with a physical and mental cost.
In two previous meetings this season, the Winnipeg Jets (14-14-2) have come close, but have dropped both decisions to St. Louis: 4-2 at MTS Centre on Oct. 18, and 3-2 at Scottrade Center on Nov. 16.
The physical toll: 98 total hits in those two games, with the Jets dishing out 59.
The mental toll: Winnipeg was within a goal of the Blues (17-10-4) going into the final two minutes of each contest.
Blake Wheeler says these are the types of games the Jets have to learn how to win.
“I remember last year, kind of having similar problems in our division, and we were able to scratch and claw our way to get over that hump, and start to build confidence in those games,” said Wheeler. “We’re going to find a way to beat teams like St. Louis and some of the better teams in our division. It’s tough, it really is, and these games are important.”
MTS Centre may be the place where that lesson is learned. The Jets have won three in a row, and five of their last six, in the hangar. One step toward getting a valuable two points tonight will be to slow down Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who sits third in the NHL with 18 goals, three of those coming against the Jets.
“Everybody’s got a game plan, and it’s not working particularly well,” said Head Coach Paul Maurice. “(He has an) unusual skill set, that he can take a pass and it’s not always just off his stick as fast as he can get it off. He takes that time to find the goalie, find the space, and if it’s not there, change his angle off his stick, change his body position angle.”
“He’s tough to contain because he needs one crack at it to make you pay,” said Wheeler, who leads the Jets in points with 28. “He’s dangerous, highly skilled, his release is about as good as it gets in the NHL. You have to try and frustrate him and get him mentally out of the game. If you let him hang around, he can hurt you at any time.”
Coming into tonight’s action, the Jets sit five points back of Nashville for fifth in the Central Division, while the Blues are tied with Chicago for second. Winnipeg’s power play went 0/5 in a 2-0 loss to Chicago on Friday, but Maurice says despite the Jets being ranked 27th in the NHL on the man advantage, it has seen stretches of success.
“We fix it by getting it back to looking the way it’s supposed to look when it is good. We were living off it early in the year, our power play was very good,” said Maurice. “So much of everything we do is confidence. And when you’re a confident power play group with your best players, the puck moves quicker, and everything is sharper.”
Three of Andrew Ladd’s eight goals this season have come on the power play. He says it all comes down to quickness.
“Moving the puck and getting it to the net, that’s when you’re able to create off that,” said Ladd. “A few holes open up and you’re pouncing on loose pucks. It’s just more getting back to simplifying and being quick.”
While quickness may be the name of the game on the power play, Ladd believes patience could be the theme five-on-five.
“They play a very simple, hard game. They don’t give you much. They’re very patient within that game. They have no problem waiting, and waiting, and waiting for their chances. They’ve been very successful at that for a lot of years,” said Ladd. “For us, we have to be able to do the same thing. Play a hard game and be patient, play within our system, and play the right way.”
Doing so may get the Jets in a position to improve on their 3-9-0 record against Central Division opponents.
“You obviously realize what our division looks like, and any time you can win a division game you’re taking steps up in your division toward where you want to go,” said Ladd. “For us, we’re below the line, and every team that we’re playing right now, is a big game.”
Puck drop tonight is 7 pm CT.