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What To Watch For: Pens vs. Jets

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (19-11-4) at JETS (21-8-4)

WHEN: Dec. 23, 2011 - 8:30 pm  |  WHERE: MTS Centre

WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The Winnipeg Jets will host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday for both teams’ last game before the holiday break.

The Jets play 12 of their 14 games this month at the cozy MTS Centre, and tonight will be the tenth game of that stretch. The Jets are flying in front of their appreciative home crowds, as their 4-0 blanking of Montreal on Thursday improved their record in Winnipeg to a red-hot 7-2-1 this December.

Winnipeg did stumble out of the gates to open the season, and that’s got them on the outside looking in on the playoff picture. But the two points they earned against the Canadiens pulled them from 11th place to ninth – and just one point from sixth-place Toronto in a tight Eastern Conference.

The Jets missed first-line center Bryan Little for the second-straight game with a foot injury, but that certainly didn’t deter them. In Little’s absence, Alex Burmistrov continued to center the top line – flanked by Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler – while Antti Miettinen, claimed off re-entry waivers from Tampa Bay on Dec. 13, played in just his second game in blue and white silks against the Habs.

It’s the 25-year-old Wheeler who stepped up in a big way on Thursday, scoring twice for his first multiple-goal since April 5. It was a big night for Wheeler, as the sizeable winger (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) with lots of speed and soft hands has been one of the team’s best playmakers with a team-high (tied) 19 assists, but had just three goals entering the game. Wheeler now has 17 points in his last 16 games.

Winnipeg’s defense, led by the top pairing of Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, is a lot to handle with the way they like to get involved with the offense. Byfuglien ranks fourth (tied) in scoring among NHL defensemen with six goals and 24 points while leading all league blueliners with 121 shots. Meanwhile, Friday will be the smart, speedy Enstrom’s fourth game back after missing 20 games with a broken collarbone.

Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has been outstanding on a regular basis for the Jets and has been their rock night in and night out. However, it’s yet to be determined if he or backup Chris Mason, who’s won each of his last three starts, will be between the pipes on Friday.

PENGUINS: Chris Kunitz has never scored a goal in four straight games in his NHL career. He will have a chance to do so Friday as he enters the game with tallies in each of the last three games. In his last 12 games dating back to Nov. 25, Kunitz has five goals and 11 points. The 32-year-old winger is currently tied with center Jordan Staal for third place on the team with 12 goals for the season.

JETS: Evander Kane has just one point (an assist) in his last five games, but the gritty winger does have a team-leading 15 goals and 25 points through 32 games. The 20-year-old has been shooting from all over the ice, pacing the Jets with 126 pucks to the net, and it's only a matter of time before they start denting the twine again.

Although Winnipeg won the only meeting between the teams this season on Oct. 17 (3-2), Pittsburgh has won 11 of the last 13 games in the series. In those games the Penguins are outscoring the Jets by a margin of 49-27.

The Penguins have won the season series over the Jets in five consecutive seasons dating back to 2006-07. During that stretch they are 15-4-2 against Winnipeg.

Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland was suspended for three games by the NHL for his hit on Marcus Kruger on Tuesday. Engelland will miss games Dec. 23 at Winnipeg, Dec. 27 vs. Carolina and Dec. 29 vs. Philadelphia. He will be eligible to return Dec. 31 at New Jersey.

Defenseman Paul Martin, who has missed the last two games (and has not participated in practice since sustaining his injury Dec. 16 vs. Ottawa), is still day to day with a lower-body injury. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek has been skating with the team and is also considered day to day with a concussion.

D Robert Bortuzzo, concussion-like symptoms
C Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
D Paul Martin, lower body
D Zbynek Michalek, concussion
F Richard Park, fractured foot

D Randy Jones, upper body
F Bryan Little, lower body
D Derek Meech, knee
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