When the Winnipeg Jets visit the San Jose Sharks at their home opener at "the shark tank" (aka SAP Arena) tonight, they will be facing one of the elite teams in the NHL. The Sharks demolished the defending Stanley Cup champions 4-0 in their season opener. The Sharks are younger this year, with the promotion of two prospects and a healthy Tomas Hertl. Can the Winnipeg Jets keep up the speedy attack that they used so successfully in their own opening victory?
Game time - 9 PM Central. TV - Rogers Sportsnet 360. Radio - TSN 1290.
This game against the San Jose Sharks is a really significant test for this year's newly minted, Maurice-styled Winnipeg Jets. They played extremely well against the Arizona Coyotes in their opening game. But let's face it - the San Jose Sharks are a much better hockey team than the Coyotes. If the Jets can achieve anything like the same level of success against the Sharks as they did against the Coyotes, that would be another huge step forward for the Jets.
The Jets are without their star winger, Evander Kane. That will obviously present an additional challenge for the team, although Dustin Byfuglien looked terrific in Kane's spot on the line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. The Jets may feel Kane's absence more on the third line, with Byfuglien being replaced by one of the Jets' depth forwards. Early reports indicate that Matt Halischuk might join Mathieu Perrault and Adam Lowry on that line.
Keys to the game for the Jets:
1. The Jets' top two lines (including the "second line" of Michael Frolik, Brian Little and Andrew Ladd). If they can play with the same level of speed and intensity against the Sharks, then the Jets should be able to make it a close game. Brian Little is a key player for the Jets.
2. Making good plays to exit the defensive zone successfully. San Jose plays a big, aggressive game. The Jets need to counteract that with smart plays to exit their own zone. The Jets need to limit turnovers, and limit the time spent inside their own blue line. Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Jacob Trouba and Paul Postma need to be particularly successful here, in order for the Jets to win.
3. The Jets must use their size advantage. Yes, the Jets have a slight size (and weight) advantage over the San Jose Sharks! This was a revelation for me. I watched the first ever meeting of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 against the San Jose Sharks "way back" in January 2012, live at the MTS Centre, and it was a bit hard to watch, as San Jose really shut down the Jets with their obviously greater size at that time. (The Jets had also lost Bogosian and Byfuglien to injuries back in January 2012). But, according to recent analysis, the Jets are now the 2nd tallest team in the NHL, and the 4th heaviest. The Sharks are not far behind at 4th tallest and 7th heaviest. The Jets' forwards are on average 1 inch taller than the Sharks forwards, while the defensemen are about the same average height. If the Jets can use their "reach" advantage, they might just win this heavyweight tilt.
San Jose Sharks
When the Sharks lost four straight games in their opening playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, general manager Doug Wilson said that the Sharks were going to rebuild. This raised questions about some of their longstanding veterans. In the end, the core of the team remained intact, but veterans such as Martin Havlat, Brad Stuart, and Dan Boyle have departed during the offseason.
The Sharks' projected lineup features two newly-promoted prospects - Chris Tierney (C), a strong skater with good hockey IQ; and Mirco Mueller (D), a smooth-skating defender. Also new to the Sharks is Tye McGinn (LW), who was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers by trade. These three players, along with returning players Logan Couture (C), Tomas Hertl (C), and Matt Nieto (LW), are the six players on the Sharks' roster who are under the age of 26, representing the youth of the team.
Returning stars include Joe Thornton (C), Patrick Marleau (LW), Joe Pavelski (C), and one of the best defensemen in the NHL, Marc-Edouard Vlasic (D).
Keys to the game for the Sharks:
1. Slow down the Jets in the neutral zone. I think that the Jets have a speed advantage, even without Kane in the lineup. The Sharks cannot let the Jets gain full speed, or they just might be chasing them from the wrong side of the battle.
2. Forecheck the Jets defensemen. Tobias Enstrom is great at moving the puck, as is Jacob Trouba. However, Trouba is still young. Ditto Paul Postma. Zach Bogosian has games where he resembles a football quarterback who can be rattled by a strong pass rush. The remaining Jets defensemen are not particularly strong at moving the puck. I think that the key battle in this game will be between the San Jose forecheckers and the Jets defence corps, as to whether the Jets can successfully move the puck out of their own zone.
3. Rattle Andre Pavelec. Pavelec played a solid game against the Arizona Coyotes, and avoided the "soft goals" that have plagued him from time to time in the past three years. If the Sharks allow Pavelec to continue with the calm, collected game that he played against the Coyotes, then he could make it a long night for the home team. If the Sharks can rattle Pavelec, with a solid net-front presence, and interfere with his movement (within the rules?), then they might achieve some success with the sometimes unpredictable net minder for the Winnipeg Jets.
Winnipeg Jets upset the San Jose Sharks, employing the same game plan that they executed so well against the Arizona Coyotes. Winnipeg Jets win 3-2 in a nail-biter.
Player to Boo (on your TV or radio)
Joe Thornton. Just a random suggestion. Feel free to go with the flow on this one.