Games against the Nashville Predators (20-18-8) have been some of the most noteworthy in 2015-16, and tonight the Winnipeg Jets (21-22-3) play host to the fourth tilt in their five-game series. November's 7-0 drubbing is long-forgotten; the Jets now feature a 2-1-0 record against Nashville on the season. Their most recent meeting was January 14th's thrilling 5-4 overtime victory, a win which helped to usher in the unofficial reign of Captain Wheeler.
While the Winnipeg Jets have been a mediocre 4-5-1 over their last ten games, Nashville can only look at that record with envy. They've gone an incredible 2-6-2 over the same stretch, allowing the Colorado Avalanche to pip them from a playoff spot and down to sixth in the Central.
Catch the game tonight, 7:00 PM Central Time on FS-TN, TSN3 and TSN 1290.
Keys to the Game: Winnipeg Jets
The Triumvirate: With Scheifele, Stafford and Lowry all out, Winnipeg's forward corps continues to look like it's held together with duct tape and hope. In this trying time, (at least) three Jets deserve special recognition.
After a subpar stretch of three games with save percentages of .893, .885 and .886, Connor Hellebuyck has bounced back with two stellar performances, including a shutout. Bryan Little continues what might be a career year, with 38 points in 46 games and 5 in his last five. And of course, there's star of the show and hero of the city, Blake Wheeler:
Wheeler's big time goals against Nashville and Minnesota are the kind which aren't easily or quickly forgotten. These three players have done their best to take the team on their backs, and while Winnipeg's record is middling, their individual success deserves applause.
The Kids are All Right: There's a solid case to be made for placing this triumvirate onto a pedestal. But does this mean they're completely alone?
Thankfully not. There has been an Ehlers awakening. Have you felt it? With four points in six games (and three in four), the expected turnaround for Nikolaj Ehlers is seemingly underway. And then there's Joel Armia.
After 15 games and counting, Armia has been a very pleasant surprise. Middling reviews of his game with the Moose gave cause for pessimism, but he's doing a pretty good job of seizing the NHL opportunity and endearing himself to the fans:
With just two goals and zero assists, point production hasn't quite manifested itself yet, but his underlying numbers are good. He has a respectable 51.5 Corsi For % at 5v5, and at 5v5 Close, his CF% of 56.6 leads the team. In addition, his last two games have seen ice times of 17:15 and 15:29; his previous high was 10:54 on December 18th. Should he continue receiving that kind of ice time opportunity, points will be expected to follow.
If the Jets duct tape second line of Armia-Perreault-Ehlers can keep on rolling, it'll go a long way to mitigating the current rash of injuries.
Keys to the Game: Nashville Predators
Centre depth, centre woe: Ryan Johansen has been better than advertised. He's tallied 7 points in his first 6 games as a Predator, and with a shooting percentage of 10.0%, it's not borne of the unsustainable. He's stepped into Nashville's 1C role effortlessly, averaging 19:47 TOI and leading the team in 5v5 CF%, at 64.62.
But as Johansen has increased, Nashville's other centremen have seemingly decreased. Mike Ribeiro has an okay three points in his last six games, but zero in his last three. Let's not even start on Mike Fisher (just 2 assists in 11 games, on pace for 18 points total) or Paul Gaustad (Paul Gaustad).
The team can expect reinforcement when Colin Wilson returns from IR, but Ryan Johansen can't do it alone. Those pivots bumped down the depth chart need to help shoulder the burden.
#PekkaProblems: Pekka, Pekka, Pekka. What are the Nashville Predators going to do with you. Let's take a look at his last five games, courtesy of NHL.com:
Pekka Rinne's last five games read like a super happy fun time for Nashville Predators fans: pic.twitter.com/oJ3qYfKn9J— Philip Iver (@PhilipAIver) January 21, 2016
At .902, Rinne is now barely over the hockey Mendoza Line of .900 SV%. Out of 45 goaltenders who have played a minimum of 15 games, his even strength save percentage of .915 is 36th, tied with the Smiths and Condons of the world. If the Nashville Predators miss the playoffs this season, he's on track to be the primary reason.
Carter Hutton earned a shutout in his last outing, bringing his SV% up to .910. Is he the answer? Probably not, unless the coaching staff decides to trust him with starts and he subsequently delivers. But Peter Laviolette has remained more than happy with running Rinne into the ground, even in the face of underwhelming returns.
Long story short, the Preds are in a bit of a pickle. At least Minnesota Wild fans can delight in the carnage:
Players to Boo Mercilessly
Ryan Johansen and Ryan Ellis. The "(Seth) Jones is better" chant gives us a two for one opportunity; it could apply to both players equally.
There's no way we could have four action-packed tilts in a row against the Nashville Predators. Consequently, this will be a slow, grinding affair. Ryan Johansen will score. Mike Fisher will not. Joel Armia will continue to quietly impress.
Jets win 3-1, with Ehlers scoring another empty-netter, assisted by Armia.