Finally solving the well-oiled machine that is the Minnesota Wild will be a gargantuan task for a Winnipeg Jets squad missing several pieces on the blue line.
Neither Jacob Trouba (upper body, likely out a week) nor Paul Postma (lower body, day to day) will be available today when the Jets host the Wild at MTS Centre at 4 p.m. The club is already missing Toby Enstrom (upper body) and Tyler Myers (lower body), with no clear date on when the key blue-liners might return.
So, pencil in Brian Strait — called up from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League Saturday — and expect to see plenty of Julian Melchiori and Mark Stuart as the Jets (31-33-7) — mired in 10th place in the Western Conference and 10 points back of the St. Louis Blues for the second and final wild-card spot — attempt to defeat the Wild for the first time during the 2016-17 NHL season.
Minnesota is perfect in four contests with Winnipeg, claiming a 4-3 victory Oct. 15 and a 3-1 win Nov. 23 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and a 4-2 win Feb. 7 followed by a 6-5 triumph three weeks later, both coming at MTS Centre.
The Jets, almost certainly out of the playoff picture now, are 16-8-2 against Central Division teams, but haven’t figured out how to beat Wild coach Bruce Boudreau’s talented club — though the Wild are stuck in a four-game losing skid after dropping a 3-2 decision to the New York Rangers Saturday night.
Rookie rearguard Josh Morrissey said Minnesota’s army of forwards attacks in waves.
"They’ve got a lot of options up front, a lot of depth through their lineup," he said. "(Mikael) Granlund’s having a great year and a couple of other guys are putting up some pretty big numbers. It’s not just one line killing you and doing the damage; they’ve probably got three or four lines that can contribute offensively."
Indeed, Granlund is posting career numbers, firing 24 goals and adding 41 helpers, while his middle man, Mikko Koivu, 34, shows no signs of slowing down. He’s potted 18 goals and chipped in 34 helpers. Jason Zucker (21 goals, 24 assists) rounds out the top trio.
Pick your poison. If that line doesn’t get you, the Eric Staal-led line, with wingers Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle, storm out, followed by recently acquired centre Martin Hanzal and veteran linemates Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
Erik Haula, with Chris Stewart and Brandon native Ryan White, comprise a beefy, rambunctious fourth trio.
"As a defenceman, that’s where you’ve got to limit turnovers, limit mistakes and not give them second opportunities," Morrissey said. "If they can kind of get the cycle game going, get ahead of you on the change, all of a sudden they have that next line coming out on a wave. That’s how they seem to build their offence. They’re a tough team to play against, but it’s gonna be a fun challenge."
Morrissey will likely be paired with Strait, Dustin Byfuglien is expected to be partnered with Melchiori, while Ben Chiarot and Mark Stuart will play together.
Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck is expected to get his 16th straight start.
Melchiori, who has dressed for just seven games this season and has just 19 career NHL contests under his belt, all with Winnipeg, maintains a successful outing for him can only be accomplished through a smart, uncomplicated style of play.
"We miss those guys… elite defenders. So, guys like me... we just try and play a simple game," he said. "It’s progressing. It’s kind of been patchy at times, just because of the inconsistency of getting in (the lineup), sitting for a while and then getting in.
"It’s a great opportunity, for other guys as well, to play bigger minutes. I’m really looking forward to it. In the last year, I’ve got to string some games together and I’ve felt really good. So, I’m hoping I can do the same and show some stuff."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Melchiori was solid in Thursday’s 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders and is deserving of added responsibility.
"He’s a big man that can move and he’s figuring out how to use it. What he’s strong at is he’s got a really good straight-line speed, he absolutely never gets to a puck second, so there’s no fear in his game," Maurice said.
"He’s willing to play a physical game and it takes him a while to get comfortable, kind of that defensive defenceman that doesn’t want to make mistakes. But when he gets to that speed, when he’s driving his legs, he can be strong in his own end."
Winnipeg centre Mark Scheifele, seventh in NHL scoring with 28 goals and 70 points, said the Jets are eager to snap the winless streak against the Wild.
"We know we can play with Minnesota. Every game’s pretty tight," he said. "We can’t look at them as such a powerhouse, we know we can play with them. Against a team like that, it might take 60 minutes to solve them, but if it takes that long, if we play good defence, we can come out successful."
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