After the all doom and gloom heading into the NHL's all-star break, the Winnipeg Jets appear to have come back rejuvenated for the stretch run.
The Jets, who have gone 2-1-1 and allowed eight goals since the eight-day intermission, host the Ottawa Senators Saturday afternoon and the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.
Left-winger Kyle Connor reiterated a popular refrain Friday, crediting No. 1 goaltender Connor Hellebuyck for much of the club's success.
"He's been (the) backbone of our team all year," said Connor following practice at Bell MTS Place. "When we've struggled at times, he stole us games. He's been fantastic and just seems like he's getting better. He's stronger the last couple, even after the break, so hopefully he continues."
The 27-23-5 Jets entered Friday one point out of a wild-card playoff spot and will have six consecutive home games to improve their position. No. 2 goaltender Laurent Brossoit will get the start against the Sens.
"We needed them to be good," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "You've got four games against really strong opponents that have some good firepower up front. Your goaltender's gonna have to be the difference in all of those games. I still think Boston was our best of the four. Our goaltending has been fantastic."
Hellebuyck will continue to get the lion's share of the work.
"We're gonna need him to play a block of games in here," said Maurice. "We want to make sure that... we stay out of this trap — that we run Connor so long that we wear him out and we also put too big of a gap between Laurent's starts and we don't give him a chance to be good. (Brossoit) was outstanding against Boston."
Defenceman Luca Sbisa, who left Thursday's 4-2 win in St. Louis after taking a David Perron shot off the inside of his right knee, did not practise.
"We'll list him as day-to-day. X-rays were negative and he's probably a little too sore to go tomorrow, but we'll just leave it at that," said Maurice.
Anthony Bitetto will draw back into Winnipeg's lineup. Defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and centre Blake Wheeler also did not skate Friday but are expected to play against the Sens.
Blue-liner Tucker Poolman, who hasn't played since sustaining a lower-body injury on Jan. 12, could be back soon. Poolman skated twice Friday and could be cleared for active duty by the middle of next week.
Bryan Little hasn't played since being struck in the left ear by a Nikolaj Ehlers' slapshot on Nov. 5. The 32-year-old centre, who required 25 to 30 stitches to close the gash and suffered a brain bleed, has been skating but Maurice was cautious when describing his recovery.
"There will be a test here in the next few days and we'll go from there. This one doesn't have the markers of a normal injury where you're saying, you're give them this much time. Usually you get a window, like four to six (weeks) is the number I've heard a thousand times times this year but this one, there isn't a window," he said.
"Even if he passes all these tests, he's still gonna have to get through feeling really comfortable on the ice. It was described to me as, 'This isn't a concussion issue, this is more like a car accident. This is like a trauma issue.'"
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.