The Winnipeg Jets have had plenty of success in a season that sees them in playoff position, but they’ve yet to prove their mettle against the best of the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Currently occupying second place in the Central Division, Winnipeg will host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night in the first meeting between the two standout clubs.
After following a three-game skid with a three-game winning streak, the Jets will be playing their fourth home game in a stretch of five of six on home ice in Manitoba.
They are 3-1-0 in the first three home games of the set, losing 4-1 to the Minnesota Wild two days after Christmas.
Things have been just right in Winnipeg’s world since that setback. Even with the three straight losses, coach Rick Bowness’ group is 6-4-0 in its past 10 games, but it has struggled against competition in the East.
The Jets have won just five of 11 matchups (5-6-0) against the other conference. In five matches against the Atlantic Division, they are 3-2-0.
On Tuesday, Winnipeg watched fourth-line right wing Sam Gagner break a 2-2 tie against the Calgary Flames by deflecting in the game-winning tally with 5:40 remaining.
According to Bowness, three players who have battled injuries all season — forwards Cole Perfetti and Nikolaj Ehlers and defenseman Nate Schmidt — are expected to return to the lineup for the Jets.
The speedy Ehlers played in the season’s first two matches but has not appeared in a game since Oct. 17. Schmidt has been out nine games, while Perfetti has missed five.
“If this was a playoff game, (the three) probably would play,” Bowness said before the 3-2 win over the Flames. “This gives us a couple of extra days and a practice on Thursday.”
The Jets are 16-5-1 when scoring first and are 10-4-1 in one-goal contests. In eight overtime games, they are 7-1.
Playing in the second matchup on its three-game road trip, Tampa Bay had its perfect record against the Central Division tarnished in a 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild. The club is 1-1-0 through two games against the division on the trip and lost for the first time in five games overall.
Minnesota beat the Lightning by turning a 1-0 game after 20 minutes into a 3-0 game in the opening 9:27 of the second period.
“It was a pretty even game, then they get the two bang, bang,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s unfortunate we don’t kill (the Wild’s power play) off. A couple of their goals … they got some breaks. Stuff went their way tonight for them.
“Kind of a perfect storm — us coming off a back-to-back. It’s our fifth game in eight nights, and they’ve been here resting. They only played two games in a week. Not a complaint, it happens to every team. But they took advantage of a situation that worked out in their favor.”
Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy — 16-9-1 thus far — was expected to start the second game of the back-to-back set, but he did not play for a second straight night because of illness. Backup Brian Elliott surrendered four goals on 32 shots.
With the loss, Tampa Bay slipped to 9-8-0 away from home.
–Field Level Media