The Western Conference standings remain quite tight, but Vegas holds a two-point lead in the Pacific Division and will look to build on that lead now that Edmonton and Calgary no longer have games in hand.
Following tonight’s contest, the Knights take on Calgary and Edmonton in a back-to-back starting on Sunday, so this weekend will be key as they head into the final stretch of the regular season.
The Knights are coming off a 3-0 win against the Devils and are hoping that they can replicate their recent home-ice success on the road.
The Jets also are coming off a win (a 3-1 victory against Buffalo) but have gone 5-4-1 in their last 10 games. That being said, they have won each of their last three home games and have gone 7-2-1 in their last 10 home games.
This season has been a disappointing one for Winnipeg, especially as the Jets’ blue line has taken several hits with the losses of Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers as well as the “situation” with Dustin Byfuglien.
However, there is still a tremendous amount of talent on this roster, particularly in the top six. The top-heavy Jets have two players with 70-plus points and five with at least 50. Plus, Neal Pionk has established himself on the top power-play unit and has a career-best 43 points, 24 of which have come on the man advantage.
Winnipeg is in a four-way tie for the second wildcard slot with 74 points, though Vancouver has two games in hand. Even so, the Jets are very much alive in the playoff race, so tonight will be a crucial test for both teams.
One player who will be particularly eager to succeed is Cody Eakin, who will face his former team for the first time since getting dealt a few days before the trade deadline.
With Bryan Little out for the season, Eakin has stepped into a second-line role for the Jets and is skating with Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, allowing Blake Wheeler to return to the right side on the top line. Eakin has just one assist in five games with the Jets in what has been a down year overall for Vegas’ favorite ginger.
But the Jets continue to ride or die on the play of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who is the main reason this team is anywhere near a playoff spot.
The Jets are 10th in Corsi Against per 60 (57.11), sixth in Shots Against per 60 (31.87), third in Expected Goals Against per 60 (2.56) and second in High-Danger CA/60 (12.68), yet they’re 17th in Goals Against per 60 (2.47) and 20th in actual Goals Against per game (2.9).
That is thanks to Hellebuyck, who is fifth in Goals Saved Above Average (10.98) and third in GSAA at all strengths (17.21). Among goalies with at least 40 starts, he ranks second and first in those two categories, respectively. He’s also tied with Marc-Andre Fleury (and Elvis Merzlikins) for the league lead in shutouts with five.
Hellebuyck’s strong play is no secret to the Knights, who saw it first-hand when these teams battled it out in the Western Conference Final in Vegas’ inaugural campaign. But that Jets team was a lot deeper, especially defensively, making Hellebuyck’s performance this season all the more impressive.
There’s only so much he can do, however, which explains why his High-Danger Save percentage is .837 at 5-on-5, good for 17th overall among goalies with at least 20 starts. Getting to the high-danger areas will be key for Vegas in tonight’s tilt.
This will be especially important since Winnipeg’s penalty kill has been outstanding. In fact, the Jets have the fifth-best penalty kill since Jan. 1 (84.7); that number goes up to a whopping 89.2 percent over the last five weeks.
It shouldn’t be overly challenging to get those prime scoring opportunities since the Jets have allowed the most high-danger shots against at 5-on-5 (374) with Hellebuyck in net. Plus, the Knights have averaged more shots per game since Feb. 1 (3.54) than any other team in the league. Vegas’ cycle game has been strong in recent games, and the Knights will need to get that going to take advantage of Winnipeg’s thin blue line.
Another key will be to slow down Winnipeg’s power play, which has been converting on 22.2 percent of its opportunities since Feb. 1.
Marc-Andre Fleury will be the last line of defense for Vegas as he is set to get the nod tonight. Fleury has gone 1-2-0 in three games against Winnipeg in his Vegas tenure (not including his stellar performance in the playoff series). However, he was not in net earlier this season when the Knights blew a 3-1 lead in the third period, ultimately losing 4-3 in overtime to the Jets in early November.
Tonight’s game could have a playoff atmosphere considering the significance of the two points up for grabs.
Here are the projected lineups (subject to change) for both clubs:
Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith
Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Nicolas Roy
Brandon Pirri — Chandler Stephenson — Nick Cousins
William Carrier — Tomas Nosek — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud
Kyle Connor — Mark Scheifele — Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers — Cody Eakin — Patrik Laine
Jansen Harkins — Andrew Copp — Jack Roslovic
Mathieu Perreault — Nicholas Shore — Mason Appleton
Josh Morrissey — Dylan DeMelo
Dmitry Kulikov — Neal Pionk
Nathan Beaulieu — Tucker Poolman
How to watch
Time: 5 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM