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Jets look for improved special teams play against Rangers

by Mitchell Clinton (@MClinton007) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets (14-15-2) have played seven sets of back-to-back games this season. They know the difficulty in going all out for 60 minutes against an opponent, hopping on a plane, arriving in the wee hours of the morning, then gearing up for another gruelling 60-minute effort mere hours later.

They’re not in that situation tonight, but their opponents, the New York Rangers, are.

“We want to play with lots of energy, and skate, and make it tough on them from the get go,” said captain Andrew Ladd. “We know they had a tough loss last night, and I’m sure they’ll be looking to get redemption and get back to playing their kind of hockey too. We’ll be ready for that.”

That tough loss Ladd pointed out was a 5-2 defeat to the Minnesota Wild. The Rangers (19-10-4) also lost goaltender Antti Raanta to a head injury in the first period.

But the Jets aren’t focused on what the Rangers will bring to MTS Centre tonight. They know the Rangers are 5-2-1 in the back half of back-to-back games this season. For Winnipeg, the focus is continuing to play well five-on-five (they’re 10th in the NHL shot attempts when tied or within one goal in the third period), while improving special teams play.

“That’s where the focus is at, is to try and improve on that,” said Drew Stafford. “We put some pretty good work on both special teams. Now it’s time to execute.”

Executing those things against the Rangers special teams unit will be a good test for the Jets. New York sits in the NHL’s top 10 in both power play and penalty kill. Jets head coach Paul Maurice said following practice yesterday that when the Jets penalty kill is at its best when it’s “aggressive.”

Stafford believes that urgency will be needed in all situations tonight.

“Every game is a must win for us, starting in October,” said Stafford. “For us, where we are in the standings, obviously we need to get things going.”

Stafford’s 11 goals this season has him ranked second on the team in that category, behind line-mate Mark Scheifele’s 12. In terms of points, the line of Stafford, Scheifele, and Mathieu Perreault sit seventh, fourth, and second on the team respectively.

“It’s one of those things that usually if one guy is around the net, one guy is in the corner working, we keep a guy high trying to find a hole, trying to get open,” said Stafford. “We all have enough skill to make plays, especially (Perreault) with his puck moving ability. He can find guys. Scheifele has a knack for scoring goals. Usually most of the time if he gets open in a scoring area, he’ll put the puck in the back of the net.

“I just try to use my size, and my strength down low to try and hold on to pucks and make plays with them …We’re relied on for some secondary scoring for the team. I think we’ve delivered so far, but that’s something we need to continue to try and get better and try to help and contribute to this team.”

Also trying to contribute to the team tonight are Matt Halischuk and Joel Armia, who are projected to be in the line-up after being recalled from the Manitoba Moose yesterday.

Both players skated with Andrew Copp in the middle during today’s morning skate. Maurice says he’d like to see both players continue playing the game that earned them the opportunity.

“For Joel it’s a newer look. We haven’t seen him in our uniform yet. He’s a skilled guy, but has made some real good strides with the Moose,” said Maurice. “Matt, we’re looking for the game that he’s always played for us, and the game he’s been playing - a high energy guy, on the puck, and real smart on his routes. And some help there, he’s the senior guy on that line.”

Halischuk has played 250 career NHL games, though this will be his first this season with the Jets. The 27-year-old had six points in 24 games with the Moose before his recall. Maurice says that seniority will be an important influence on the younger players on the line.

“Matt is an incredibly positive influence on the bench during the games. When you get to play with a guy who has been in the league for a bit, as a young player you can feed off that,” said Maurice. “You get more comfortable in the game when you have a talker on your line.”

The puck drops on the Jets final home game before the holiday break at 7 pm CT.

-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com

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