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Rivalry renews as Jets host Blues

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets


AT THE MORNING SKATE

WINNIPEG – “This is the best team in the league.”

Head Coach Paul Maurice and the Winnipeg Jets have a healthy respect for their red-hot Central Division counterparts. The St. Louis Blues currently sit atop the division standings with a 45-20-5 record for 95 points – six of which have been unceremoniously taken from the Jets in three previous meetings this season.

So it goes without saying: “We have to be at our very best, shift to shift.”

“These have been tight games because, for the most part, we’ve done that, but we’re going to have to do it just a little bit better here tonight,” Maurice said.

The Jets are coming off back-to-back wins (2-1 and 5-2 over the Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks, respectively) and are currently one point up on the Calgary Flames for the second of two spots in the Western Conference Wild Card.

Ondrej Pavelec will make his third straight start in goal tonight after recording 38 saves in Tuesday’s win over the Sharks. The 27-year-old, who has now stopped 73 of his last 76 shots faced, is coming into the night with a 15-14-7 record, along with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Pavelec is currently on pace to set a new career low in GAA. His previous best of 2.73 was set in 2010-11, when he delivered 21 wins and a career-high .914 save percentage with the Atlanta Thrashers.

Pavelec stopped 19 of 20 in a relief appearance last week in St. Louis, but was the talk of the town after the one that beat him – a 74-foot wrister – gave the Blues a 5-4 win. Ever since, he’s been nothing short of spectacular.

“We all go through (challenges) in different ways, but certainly the goalie has a microscope on him when mistakes happen,” defenceman Jay Harrison said. “He’s rebounded great and has been great all year. He’s a great guy in the room and he has the support of the guys. His confidence is shining through right now. He’s playing great for us and that’s exactly what we need.

“We’ve shown a lot of good things – a lot of positives to build around playing against St. Louis. We know it’s a challenging opponent. They’re good in every aspect of the game, from their goaltending to the offence and they limit the chances against. We have to match that stick with it for longer than they will. That’s what it’s going to take to beat them.”

Maurice said it was easy decision to go back to Pavelec after such a stunning performance the other night the kick off the home stand.

“The wins and losses weren’t adding up, but his play had started to pick up. He’s made some saves look easy and that’s usually when a guy is going,” Maurice said.

Brian Elliott is slated to get the start for the Blues.

“We’ve played well against them. We’re right there on the verge, but we need to take it to another level to beat these guys,” Blake Wheeler said. “They’re obviously a tough team to play against and a tough team to beat, and that’s why they’re sitting where they are. … They have a lot of depth up front and on their back end. They come at you with four lines, so it makes it a tough challenge. There are no shifts off and they’ve bought in to what they’re doing. Tonight, it’s about sticking to what makes us successful and making them work for every chance they get.”

Wheeler is currently on a five-game point streak (4G, 4A), finding instant chemistry with Mark Scheifele and Drew Stafford as Bryan Little recovers from an upper-body injury. The trio combined for eight points the other night against the Sharks and are looking to continue that hot streak here tonight.

Affectionately referring to Scheifele as the “catalyst” and Stafford as the “stabilizing force,” there’s no question these three have been a complement to each other since being put together on the back half of the recent road trip.

“Scheifs and I have had some success with each other in the past, so there’s some familiarity there. When he’s skating the way he is right now, he’s awesome to play with,” Wheeler said. “As for Staff, he’s been incredible out there, winning a ton of battles in the offensive zone. He can calm the puck down for us and let us buzz around.”

Added Maurice: “I’ve always liked Blake and Mark together. Blake brings certain elements of Mark’s game out with that speed. He plays a faster game. They’re a good pair, a good combination. Blake will get in and be physical on the forecheck and Mark has enough hands and skill to make plays to him.”

Scheifele has seven goals and 11 points in his last 10 games dating back to Feb. 21 at Toronto. The 22-year-old pivot has 12 goals and 42 points on the year (a new career-high) and is playing some of the heaviest minutes in the absence of the team’s top line centre.

So far, so good.

“With Bryan out especially, he knows that the importance of his role is even greater now,” Maurice said. “He and Adam (Lowry), the young centre ice men are taking a critical role with regard to line matchups, shifts, ice time. … That’s got to feel good. It’s got to excite you.”

THIS ‘N THAT

Andrew Ladd did not participate in the morning skate but will play tonight; Dustin Byfuglien (upper body), who’s been taking a regular turn at practice these past few days, is out.

“He’s probably right where we initially scheduled,” Maurice said, adding that the all-star defenceman may be available to play Saturday against the Washington Capitals. “He made some good improvements earlier in the week and then it plateaued a little bit. He’s on track in that two-to-four week range.”

— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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