WINNIPEG – For the third time in three weeks, the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators will face off as the race to the playoffs heats up again tomorrow night at MTS Centre.
Due in large part to the play of Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets have had the upper hand between these two teams of late, winning both meetings earlier this month and pulling to within four points of the second and final wild-card berth.
“It’s our playoff hope,” centre Mathieu Perreault said. “If we lose that game we really set ourselves back and into a deeper hole, so we have to go into it with the mindset that we’re going to win. There’s no other option.”
The Jets have outscored the Predators 9-5 in their past two meetings (4-1 and 5-4 victories), while Hellebuyck has made a combined 74 saves. Bryan Little, who tallied two points (1G, 1A) in Thursday’s overtime decision, is hoping to give his goalie a quieter night between the pipes.
“A couple of those games, there were 40, 50 [sic] shots against us and we had to rely on our goalie to keep us in the game. I definitely think we want to cut down on their shots against, and that’s tough because they’ve got a lot of great offensive players that like to shoot the puck.
“He plays like a veteran,” Little added of Hellebuyck. “He’s calm and confident in there, and that gives the team confidence in front of him. If things break down and we make a mistake, he’s got our back.”
Hellebuyck has the NHL’s third-best goals-against average (2.00) and save percentage (.932) in 19 appearances this season. While goaltending has definitely played a factor in the season series so far, so, too, have key contributors up front.
The Jets will once again be without forwards Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry and Drew Stafford, Head Coach Paul Maurice confirmed. The latter two were both injured in the teams’ last meeting, meaning tomorrow’s matchup could offer some added angst.
“Where both teams are in the standings, there’s that urgency,” Maurice said, “but I do think that when you see a team (this often) in a short period of time, you carry over grudges. It’s just like a playoff series. Guys remember hits … and each game becomes more and more physical.
“They’re an aggressive forechecking team and we are, too, so contact is inherent in the way the teams play.”
As for the status of the injured trio: Scheifele (lower body) and Stafford (upper body) both skated earlier this morning and, according to Maurice, “felt better than they did the day before.” Lowry (upper body) did not skate.
All three players are currently on injured reserve but can be activated in time for Saturday’s contest against former Jets Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty and the New Jersey Devils.
In other news, Ondrej Pavelec took shots for the first time in two months today as he continues the on-ice portion of his recovery from a sprained knee. There continues to be no timeline on when he could return to the lineup.
“Every day he comes in he hasn’t had a setback and he hasn’t had a day he’s been overly sore,” Maurice said.
Puck drop goes at 7:00pm CT tomorrow.
“It’s our next biggest game of the season,” Little said.
These two teams will meet once more later this year as they wrap up the season series Mar. 8 back at MTS Centre.
LATE HITS: Alexander Burmistrov did not practice today but is expected to be in the lineup tomorrow, according to Maurice.
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com