It was a month which began with such promise, but the Winnipeg Jets now return from the holiday break sporting a 4-5-0 record in 2015's final month, including just one win in their last five games. They'll be running up against a Pittsburgh Penguins squad which has largely limped through December, struggles which now leave it behind Tampa Bay and New Jersey in the chase for a wild card playoff berth. While yesterday's win over the Minnesota Wild gave them two in a row, it didn't come without a scare, as Kris Letang absorbed a questionable hit from Jarret Stoll:
Letang to the locker room after this Stoll hit (2 min minor for illegal check to the head) pic.twitter.com/90uigCK5Uj— Stephanie (@myregularface) December 27, 2015
The early word is that he's okay, which is great news for a player with a history of concussion injuries. It's less good for a Winnipeg Jets team which might have benefitted from going up against a Letang-less defence.
Catch the game tonight, 7:00 PM Central Time on Root Sports, TSN3 and TSN 1290.
Keys to the Game: Winnipeg Jets
Forget line matching: With the Jets playing at home, normally I would implore the team to line match according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition's lines. With that said, let's take a moment to look at these Pittsburgh Penguins lines from yesterday:
Lines at morning skate: Kunitz-Crosby-Perron Sheary-Malkin-Hornqvist Wilson-Bonino-Kessel Porter-Cullen-Fehr— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 26, 2015
The Pens have now won two in a row, so I hazard to guess these lines will stay largely intact. But for the Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh's spreading the wealth makes line matching a fool's errand. Each and every Pittsburgh line is dangerous in its own right. Phil Kessel is on the third line for crying out loud, and the duo of Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr are no slouches in such a depth role. Team-wide defensive responsibility needs to be emphasized, because the Jets should be wary no matter which line they're up against.
Pray for Scheifele: In a season of mixed returns, Mark Scheifele has been excellent. Chevy's favourite son is on pace for a career high 53 points, he's had possession dominant fancy stats and is looking like a top-tier second line centre out there. And so, let us now pick up our torches and pitchforks as we chase Andrew Ladd out of town:
Keys to the Game: Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby in the front seat: Sidney Crosby is showing signs of life, with 5 points in his last 3 games and 9 in his last 9. Now having fallen behind the eight ball, they'll almost certainly need a productive Crosby to make the playoffs. Beyond that, he still has 9 years left on his contract after this season, the kind of term which might cause organizational trepidation when he struggles. At only 28, Sid the Kid should still have a few dominant seasons left in him, and there's still time to return to that form this year.
Daley in the back seat: Ever since escaping the doldrums of Chicago, Trevor Daley has been good. Granted, it's been with a rather high 65.96 Offensive Zone Start %, but a 5v5 CF% of 58.87 coupled with 3 points in 5 games while averaging 20:07 TOI is pretty darn impressive. Daley's current fancy stats are likely unsustainable and born of small sample size, but if they can keep the Trevor Train rolling, it will be of invaluable assistance to their d-corps and power play. He's already been a tremendous upgrade over Rob Scuderi.
Marc-Andre Who?: With Fleury sidelined, the goaltending burden has fallen to Jeff Zatkoff and 21-year-old Matthew Murray. Murray especially has impressed, having started three straight games and posting save percentages of .923, .917 and .962 along the way. With Murray having played just yesterday, Winnipeg may luck out and see Zatkoff between the pipes. It would be foolish to celebrate too hard however, as both Pens goalies have shown the ability to provide at least competent netminding.
Alexander Burmistrov, second line centre: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 2015-16 Winnipeg Jets forward corps, courtesy of Daily Faceoff:
The Pens can bide their time; any of their lines could and will end up with a favourable matchup, sooner rather than later.
Player to Boo Mercilessly
Phil Kessel, for failing to send Steve Simmons a Christmas card this year.
One team continues to right the ship in December, and it's the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby has two assists, David Perron gives the Jets a one goal, two point audition ahead of 2016 free agency, and Winnipeg's lack of forward depth becomes laughably exposed.
Jets lose 4-2 or 5-2, I can't decide which.