NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators will be very familiar with each other by the time January comes to a close.
The two Central Division teams face off against each other three times this month, beginning with the first of those meetings tonight at Bridgestone Arena.
Winnipeg (18-19-2) sits seven points back of Nashville (19-13-7) for the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. Jets forward Adam Lowry says these games are an opportunity to get back in the race.
“We know the importance of every game, especially where we stand right now. Playing these guys three times this month, it’s important you start off these games, and you start them off right. Obviously we’ve struggled against divisional opponents this year. For us to get back into this race it’s going to be important that we start playing better within our division. No better place to start than here.
In the only other meeting of the season, Nashville beat Winnipeg 7-0 in a game that featured 156 penalty minutes. Head coach Paul Maurice doesn’t expect any carry over in terms of emotion from that contest, but adds the Jets remember that night well.
“We certainly have a memory of how sideways that one went on us real early in the game,” Maurice said of Nashville scoring four goals in under a 10-minute span in the opening period. “There will be some urgency not to let that happen.”
“It’s in the back of our minds. But at the same time every game possesses a different challenge,” said veteran Chris Thorburn. “The challenge coming in for us tonight, the biggest thing is the two points and how we go about doing that. We want to stay composed and understand what it takes to win, and hopefully execute that.”
To help the Jets get those two points tonight, they’ll look to the line of Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, and Mathieu Perreault to rekindle the offense they generated as a trio earlier in the season.
Scheifele says he’s excited to play with Ehlers, who had nine points in a 12-game stretch earlier in the season with number 55 at centre.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of speed. If you can get the puck on his stick in stride he’s pretty dangerous,” Scheifele said of Ehlers. “So try to get him moving early, and when he gets his chances, hopefully he can pop some in.”
But getting those chances will be a challenge against a Predators team that allows the second fewest shots on goal per game in the league (26.9).
“They have good back pressure, forwards work hard on the back check, they have a good high man. They play a solid defensive game,” said Scheifele. “It makes it tough to create a lot against them, but we know what we can do. And hopefully we can do that tonight.”
The Jets know they’ll have to be mindful in terms of how they enter Nashville’s zone tonight. Maurice said they’d like to have possession coming over the blue line as opposed to dumping it in. One misplaced dump in, and the puck could end up on the stick of Roman Josi or Shea Weber, who lead Nashville in points with 29 and 26 respectively.
“I think Roman Josi now is starting to get the credit that he’s deserved for a while,” said Maurice. “I think their whole group though. They move the puck, and skate, and defend as well as any back end in the National Hockey League. You do have to have an awareness of where they are on the ice, but they’re not guys that sneak into the play.”
Tonight’s game is the fourth of a season-long five game road trip that finishes in Dallas on Thursday night. A win, and the Jets will be 2-2 on the trip heading into that finale.
“We know they expect a better effort from us tonight, and we expect an effort similar to the one they gave us that game,” Lowry said of the 7-0 loss. “They were moving the puck really well that game. They were on us. They didn’t give us a lot of space. We know it’s going to be a battle tonight.”
Puck drop is 7 pm CT.
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com