WINNIPEG -- With 33 games to go and a healthy line-up for the first time since Dec. 27, 2015, the Winnipeg Jets (22-24-3) are ready to begin the unofficial second half of the NHL regular season tonight against the Dallas Stars (31-14-5).
The five days off the ice during the All-Star break proved critical for injured players Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault. Lowry has been out since Jan. 14 with an upper-body injury, while Perreault missed the final game before the break with a lower-body injury. Both players are expected to be back in the line-up tonight.
Bryan Little, who played in Winnipeg’s 5-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes despite being labelled a game-time decision leading up to puck drop, said the break was much needed.
“”I think for me and for a few other guys just to get healed up, it definitely makes a difference having some days off,” said Little. “You can tell, I feel a lot better and I’m sure the guys that were sore before feel a lot better.”
So far this season, the Jets have lost 21 man games at the centre ice position. Head coach Paul Maurice describes that position as critical, and he only needs to point to Mark Scheifele’s role with Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers against Arizona for evidence.
“We saw the effect of Mark coming back in, and the different players that you can play with him,” said Maurice, who has Ehlers playing his off wing on that line to give the coach even more options.
“It gives you more room over a block of time if a guy isn’t going or a line is getting checked to move people around,” he said. “You’d like to have all your wingers comfortable on both sides of the ice. He clearly looked comfortable there.”
So comfortable, Ehlers recorded his first career hat trick in the win over the Coyotes with Wheeler and Scheifele on his line.
“A lot of people were messaging me and congratulating me. It was pretty cool. Now it’s a new game and I have to move on from that, but it’s going to be a great memory for me, for sure,” said Ehlers. “They’re two good players I can learn a lot from. We played a good first game together and we’ll see what happens tonight.”
The Jets are 0-1-1 in two meetings with Dallas this season. The most recent meeting was Jan. 7, when Winnipeg dropped a 2-1 shootout decision at American Airlines Center. Despite the loss, Little feels the Jets did a number of good things in the game to secure a critical point in the standings.
“I think (we) just (have to) kind of pick up from where we left off in the last game. Take time and space away from their top players, and try to stay disciplined,” said Little. “They’ve got a lot of good players that can score goals and their power play is pretty deadly. We want to play them five-on-five and play a tight game.”
Two of those good players can be found in second and third place in the NHL in scoring. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have 58 and 53 points respectively so far this season, and are fresh off competing with Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien in Nashville at All-Star weekend.
“I think we know what they’re capable of. They try and transition with a lot of speed. They’ve got a lot of speed and a lot of skill up front,” said forward Blake Wheeler. “Their defensemen do a great job moving the puck up really fast. The more we make them turn, the more we make them play in their defensive zone, I think the better the game suits us.”
With the calendar flipping over the February, Little believes the pace, the physicality, and the importance of each game increases. The Jets are nine points back of Nashville for the final wildcard spot, but with a healthy forward group, Little believes his team is ready to make a run.
“You realize there’s not a lot of time left. The last couple of months go by really fast. The standings are tight, and everyone wants to get themselves in a good position,” he said. “The hockey definitely picks up, the pace picks up, and for a lot of teams including us, it’s almost like playoff hockey right now.
“We’re healthy, we’re re-grouped and relaxed now. We’re ready to get going.”
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com