ST. LOUIS – The Winnipeg Jets find themselves mired in rare slump in what’s been an otherwise successful 2017-18 NHL season so far. The Jets (18-9-5) have dropped four of their last five games and, along the way, have fallen from first place in the Western Conference earlier this month – and a share of the league-lead in points – to third in the Central Division.
The good news is Winnipeg has the chance to break out of their current slump in a major way in the next week, beginning with a home-and-home series with the St. Louis Blues that begins tonight at Scottrade Center before wrapping up Sunday afternoon at Bell MTS Place.
The Blues (21-10-2) have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL this year. With 44 points, they hold a share of top spot in the Western Conference and the Central Division with the Nashville Predators, who have two games in hand. They’re led by off-season acquisition, centreman Brayden Schenn, who has a team-best 37 points in 32 games, including 16 goals.
Even with a number of key players out of the lineup, including forward Jaden Schwartz and defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues are still a solid team and one that has proven already this year they have the depth to compete with anyone. St. Louis opened the season without forwards Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund and Robby Fabbri, as well as defencemen Jay Bouwmeester. Fabbri and Bouwmeester have yet to return.
As for the Jets, they’ll once again be without defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom.
"They had some big injuries right at the start and the question was how were they going to get out of the gate and they answered that," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "They’ve done a marvellous job of surviving some important people out of their lineup because they’ve got some real good depth here. We feel we’ve developed some depth on our group so…we miss Buff and Toby, for sure, the minutes and the situations they play in. Everybody has to go through it and to do well you have to flourish in those times as well."
St. Louis finishes up a four-game home stand tonight – one that started off with a promising 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres but has fizzled out following losses to Tampa Bay and, most recently, Anaheim on Thursday. The Blues have been exceptional on the road, collecting points in 12 of 15 games (10-3-2) this year. That hasn’t translated on home ice, where with the recent pair of losses St. Louis is a respectable 11-7.
The Jets have been on a much different path, with most of their success coming on home turf. While the Jets are 11-3-1 at Bell MTS Place, they’ve struggled at times on enemy territory, where they boast a 7-6-4 mark. Winnipeg has dropped their last five road games, including a three-game stretch through Detroit, Sunrise, Fla., and Tampa Bay earlier this month.
Fresh off one of their worst efforts of the season – a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday at home – concern has started to creep in over all aspects of the Jets’ game. Specifically, though, there is alarm over the defensive-zone play and in net. The Jets have surrendered five or more goals in three of the last five games.
Against Chicago, Maurice, hoping to create a spark for his team, shuffled his forward lines. He moved Nikolaj Ehlers to the top line with captain Blake Wheeler and Mark Schiefele, who has just one assist in his last five games. Mathieu Perreault, who started the game on the fourth line, then took over for Ehlers on the No. 2 unit, alongside Bryan Little and Patrik Laine.
Maurice won’t continue with the experiment, though, returning to the familiar lineup against the Blues.
Connor Hellebuyck has enjoyed his best start as a professional, boasting a 16-4-4 record, 2.55 goals against average and .917 save percentage. But in six of his last eight games Hellebuyck has finished with a below-.900 save percentage, with the Jets earning just two wins during that stretch.
In order to give Hellebuyck some rest, Maurice has decided to go with backup Steve Mason against the Blues. Mason is in need to get back into a rhythm after missing nine games with a concussion he suffered in the first period of a 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks Nov. 25.
"It’s the kind of game I think he could excel at; they put a lot of pucks to the net through traffic," said Maurice, noting he liked Mason’s last full road game, which was 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings Nov. 22. "Steve would have played a bunch of games in this block if it wasn’t due to injury. And it’s different for a goalie that runs a month that when you don’t play but you’re healthy your mind can play tricks on you. When you’re coming off an injury you’re focused on getting healthy, feeling good so he’s actually in a real positive place to go in tonight."
Mason has backed up Hellebuyck the last two games but with the Jets set to play five games in the next eight nights, some kind of rotation in net will be necessary. Mason is 2-4-1 in seven starts, with a 3.45 GAA and .904 save percentage.
"Just feel the puck early, hopefully. Make a couple of simple saves, get a couple of touches behind the net, make a couple of clean passes and other than that, muscle memory takes over, more or less," said Mason. "This year, in general, has been a test. Most of my starts have been few and far between, so I feel like I’ve been utilizing the practice time to the best of my abilities and trying to stay sharp. I’m going to go out there and try to give the team a chance to win.
"I’m excited. Obviously coming in here, it’s a tough place to come away with two points, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. But it will definitely be a fun game to be a part of."
The Blues will counter with Carter Hutton in net, after starter Jake Allen has lost his last two starts. Hutton is 4-2-0 this season, with a stellar 1.88 GAA and .937 save percentage.
Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine
Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Brandon Tanev
Mathieu Perreault-Matt Hendricks-Joel Armia
Josh Morrissey -Jacob Trouba
Dmitry Kulikov-Tyler Myers
Ben Chiarot-Tucker Poolman
Vladimir Sobotka-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Alex Steen-Brayden Schenn-Dmitrij Jaskin
Scottie Upshall-Patrik Berglund-Ivan Barbashev
Magnus Paajarvi-Kyle Sundqvist-Chris Thorburn
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
Vince Dunn-Jordan Schmaltz
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.