Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 6/3/2019 (445 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TAMPA — First place one day. Second place the next. Such is life right now for the Winnipeg Jets, who have been trading places with the Nashville Predators on a regular basis lately.
The latest flip-flop happened Tuesday night as the Jets lost 5-2 in Tampa and the Predators won 5-4 in a shootout at home against Minnesota.
It's beginning to look like the battle for Central Division supremacy might just come down to the final days of the season. Not to mention figuring out who exactly they'll be facing off against once the playoffs begin. St. Louis? Dallas? Minnesota? Colorado? Arizona? All five are legitimate possibilities with one month left on the regular-season schedule.
So who has the upper hand? And how important is it to finish on top? With the Jets enjoying an off-day Wednesday in the middle of this four-game eastern road swing, we thought we'd break down the road ahead for both teams.
Nashville (39-25-5) has 83 points through 69 games. Winnipeg (39-23-4) has 82 points through 66 games. Those three games in hand the Jets have on the Predators are certainly looming large, as is the final head-to-head meeting between the teams on March 23 at Bell MTS Place.
(The St. Louis Blues, who had been red-hot until cooling off over the past week, are eight and nine points back of both clubs and would need another huge run in order to make it a three-team race).
The obvious bonus is the winner is guaranteed home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and possibly the Western Conference final should they finish with more points than the Pacific Division champ.
Now, it's debatable how much that really means. After all, the Jets went into enemy territory last spring and beat the Predators in a winner-take-all Game 7. After also winning Game 1 and Game 5 on the road in that series. Nashville, meanwhile, took Game 4 and Game 6 at Bell MTS Place. It was more like home-ice disadvantage in that series.
Maybe that's why you haven't heard a peep from any Winnipeg players in recent weeks talking about how important a first-place finish is to them. Yeah, it would be nice to get a banner for Bell MTS Place. But the bigger priority is clearly getting their game exactly where they want it to be when the first post-season puck drops in early April.
"We feel we’re at the early stage of turning a corner and getting our game right. And it’s a different game now that we’re playing than even in December when we had a pretty good run. So we are talking about those things that will be so important in the playoffs and we’re starting to see it in our game," Jets coach Paul Maurice said prior to Tuesday's game at Amalie Arena.
Indeed, signs are pointing to the Jets being on the right track, despite falling to the NHL's top team in Tampa. Winnipeg has notched big wins in the past couple weeks on the road in Vegas, at home against Nashville and back on the road again in Columbus this past Sunday to kick off the road trip.
They'll look to get back to their winning ways when they take on the Carolina Hurricanes Friday night in Raleigh, then visit the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals Sunday night in D.C.
Then it's back home for three more challenging games next week against San Jose, Boston and Calgary, all legitimate contenders. That will conclude a stretch of nine straight games against teams that were in a playoff spot at the time the game was played. So far, Winnipeg is 2-2-0 during that stretch.
"We feel that our month is a positive challenge here. We’re running nine straight playoff teams here. Some good ones. We feel that’s the right challenge to prepare us for hockey in five weeks," said Maurice.
It's worth noting that all of those games have been played without injured defencemen Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. Their absence was certainly apparent against the Lightning, as the Jets had trouble at times getting the puck out of their own zone with ease.
"We’re a little more challenged on our exits right now on pucks that we are usually pretty strong with," Maurice said following the Tampa game.
Byfuglien is the closest to returning, and he may resume skating with the team as early as Thursday's practice in Raleigh. He would still likely be at least a week away from playing. Injured defenceman Joe Morrow is on a similar timeline, while Morrissey isn't expected back until early April.
Not that the ailments are being used as an excuse around the club.
"The way we’re looking at this right now is that you can fully expect to get to the playoffs and have injuries. Nobody cares what your lineup looks like. It just means your game is going to look a little bit different. We aren’t going to move the puck as easily. Both of those defencemen really excel at that," said Maurice.
"We certainly are a more physical team than we were, with a couple of big hitters out. But (that’s) just a factor, not an excuse. We want to get ourselves mentally prepared to hit the playoffs and be able to survive two or three injuries."
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After crunching the numbers, a few things stand out. Sure, the Jets have three extra games than the Predators (16 to 13). But they also have four more games against teams currently in playoff spots than their closest rivals (11 to 7). Winnipeg has one extra home game (7 to 6), but two more road games (9 to 7) and two extra divisional games (5 to 3).
The strength of schedule would appear to favour Nashville, especially with the Predators mostly healthy and the Jets nursing some wounds.
Did we mention that head-to-head game on March 23 might be a big one?
Mike McIntyre Reporter
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.