Today is the beginning of an interesting time for the Winnipeg Jets.
Most people have known for a while that the playoffs weren’t going to be attainable, but it only just became official after a disappointing loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There are just four games remaining in the Jets' underwhelming season and it is very interesting to see what direction the club takes over that time. Does the "core" of the team mail it in, knowing that there really is nothing left to play for? Or do they buy into the philosophy of playing hard for the fans? Do they relish the role of spoiler? Do they take advantage of the opportunity to try to do some talent evaluation? Going into the last week of the season, the Jets are a virtual lock to select in the 6-10 range at the NHL Draft yet again. Do they find a way to get hot again and watch themselves slide down the draft board?
Tonight is a big game for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They sit a point back and have played one more game than Columbus, whom they are chasing. A win tonight would put them right back in the mix but a loss would all but eliminate them and turn the ACC into the Waffle House.
Toronto is trying to break out of free-fall mode and they absolutely need to beat Winnipeg tonight. Things became slightly more interesting on Thursday night, when Jonathan Bernier strained his knee, prompting head coach Randy Carlyle to turn to local punching bag and good Manitoba boy James Reimer this evening.
It will be interesting to see who the Jets counter with tonight as common sense suggests that they start the untested and noncurrent netminder Michael Hutchinson. Considering that he is from the GTA area and the Jets essentially nothing to play for, it wouldn't be a bad decision. Ondrej Pavelec has clearly struggled since returning from injury and Hutchinson's play in the AHL has earned him an opportunity.
Tonight will mark the second and final game of the season between these two clubs. The Jets took the first one with a 5-4 win in OT. It was a big game for Winnipeg's stars with Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little all registering two points on the night. The Leafs yanked Reimer halfway through the second period, after he allowed four goals on nineteen shots. For some reason, the Leafs allowing nineteen shots halfway through the second doesn’t really shock me.
Keys to the Game
Ulterior Motives: There are a lot of reasons that the Jets players and coaches may want to win tonight. There are also several reasons that the people watching from high atop the ice and maybe even the fans may want the Jets to lose. The Jets are sifting through the muck with four other teams to determine who will obtain a higher pick at this summer's draft. There are also several players and coaches right now who are fighting for jobs next year. It’s the decade old conundrum: on one hand, it would be great to play cloak and dagger with a team as despised as the Maple Leafs but on the other hand, throwing in the towel for a higher draft pick wouldn't be bad either.
Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending: Everybody who reads Arctic Ice Hockey regularly knows the story. We all know the numbers. We all know what the biggest weakness is on a team that is chock full of weaknesses. There are two goalies on the active roster. They both have something to fight for. If Pavelec gets the start, he needs to play like the future of his career is on the line. If Michael Hutchinson gets the start, he needs to seize his opportunity by the throat and prove to the Jets’ brass that he belongs. Ed. Note: Ondrej Pavelec will start tonight, for what reason we're not sure.
Ray Charles to the haters: I remember Evander Kane using that line years ago now on his Twitter feed on one of those days when he thought the whole world was against him for no reason. He thrives on feeling like it’s him against the world. Evander’s scoring numbers have been down this year and he has missed big chunks of time but if you take a look at his Corsi numbers, it really hasn’t been a bad season for Evander. His shooting percentage is way down as well (if he was at his career average, he’d have 22 goals right now). There is a lot swirling around both on and off the ice in the mainstream media for Evander right now. He needs to grab this nationally televised game by the coconuts and shut everybody up for the day. Ed. Note: in another stroke of managerial genius, Evander Kane has been scratched from tonight's line-up.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Confidence: I would be shocked if the Maple Leafs had any confidence left. After the collapse that they had against the Boston Bruins last year, it seemed impossible that they could ever match something as epic as that. Well, it looks like they're about to replicate the feat. The Leafs have lost eight of their last ten and their once-certain hopes of getting into the playoffs are perilously close to being dashed. They look like deer in headlights on the ice. James Reimer is going into shell shock mode. This team desperately needs a win but are they capable?
Let Phil Kessel loose: The star of the Maple Leafs has six points in his last twelve games. There are very few teams that have a top line that is better than the one that the Maple Leafs put out there, but that line needs to have success for the Leafs to have success. That success begins and ends with Phil Kessel. If the Leafs have any chance of overtaking Columbus, Phil Kessel has to carry them there.
A future Jet?: It's no secret that James Reimer has been linked to the 2014-15 starting job in Winnipeg for quite some time. We have all spent a good number of hours looking into him over the past several months. He is a good goalie that is hopelessly struggling while playing behind an epically porous team. His save percentage is a very #PaveLOLec .864 over the past five games and the Leafs need that to be about ten percent higher over their last four games.
Player to Boo Mercilessly
Phil Kessel and his Kessel face.
Leafs 4 - F