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Game #39 Preview: Winnipeg Jets at Anaheim Ducks

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What playoff and 2014-15 regular season sweep?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Winnipeg Jets (18-18-2) and Anaheim Ducks (15-15-7), two teams with no recent history whatsoever shutup, clash tonight for the first of three games this season. The Ducks begin an eight game homestand, while Winnipeg reaches the midpoint of their five game road trip. Also, MARK SCHEIFELE'S BACK WOO!!!1!

A moment of silence for Matt Halischuk. We will remember you.

Catch the game tonight, 8:00 PM Central Time on TSN3, TSN 1290, FS-SD and something called PRIME. No, I haven't a clue either.

Keys to the Game: Winnipeg Jets

On Your Mark: Never before have I been so excited to see Mark Scheifele in the lineup. The Jets' second line centre had greatly impressed prior to suffering a concussion at the hands of Andrew Ladd. On pace to break the 50-point mark for the first time in his NHL career, one hopes he gets up to speed quickly and returns to the form we've been treated with all season. Winnipeg now has the happy headache of figuring out new line combinations:

Holding the Fort: The Jets managed to go 3-1-0 in Scheifele's absence, in large part because folks stepped up when reshuffled. Drew Stafford has looked perfectly adequate beside Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, a move which enabled Andrew Ladd to join a new and fascinating second line alongside Adam Lowry and Alexander Burmistrov. While that line hasn't always had fancy stat success, Lowry looks rejuvenated since his recall and Burmi seems to have truly shaken off the KHL rust.

On defence, Dustin Byfuglien has been, well, Dustin Byfuglien, while Jacob Trouba continues to benefit from his post-Mark Stuart existence. Even a player such as Tyler Myers, who has gone a bit cool in terms of point production and is far from perfect, finds himself on the positive side of the 5v5 CF% ledger at 52.41% on the season and has put together three strong games against Detroit, Arizona and San Jose (a certain penalty notwithstanding).

With steady goaltending behind them, Winnipeg's pieces of the puzzle have done a fair job of holding the fort, an effort they can and should improve upon with the insertion of Scheifele.

Hellebuyck or Hutchinson: Conventional wisdom in today's NHL holds that back-to-back games are when your backup goaltender sees some action. Conventional wisdom doesn't have to deal with having Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson.

After starting yesterday against the San Jose Sharks, future franchise cornerstone Hellebuyck is 3-1-0 in his last four games played, sporting a combined .955 SV% over that span. On the other hand, Michael Hutchinson hasn't played since a Dec. 22nd loss against the Calgary Flames and comes with a subpar .906 SV% and 5-8-1 record. It's clear which goaltender Paul Maurice (rightly) trusts more at the moment, but he can't avoid Hutch forever. While Helle is the hot hand, it would be hard to begrudge PoMo turning to his backup, and the offensively inept Ducks may be the perfect opponent.

Keys to the Game: Anaheim Ducks

Oh where, oh where did our goalscoring go: Picked by many as a top-tier Stanley Cup contender, the Anaheim Ducks' 2015-16 season began with a resounding thud. While they do seem to be turning things around and are now just three points behind Arizona for second in the Pacific, the team's goalscoring continues to be a major weakness. They remain dead last in Goals For Per Game at 1.84, and have scored a single goal in each of their last three tilts.

As one might expect, this kind of ineptitude requires a team effort. 4 million dollar man Carl Hagelin has 1 point in his last 12 games, on pace for 18 on the season. Ryan Kesler has 2 points in his last 12, and Jakob Silfverberg a remarkable 2 in his last 17. Those three players constitute Anaheim's second line. And while Rickard Rakell appears to be meshing very well with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the top-line, their production continues to be mildly disappointing at best, and not nearly enough to bring Anaheim out of the NHL's offensive doldrums.

Anaheim needs a number of important cogs to bounce back and contribute far more than they have. The schedule dictates that now would be a very good time to start:

John Gibson, American Hero: When current stars Cory Schneider and Jonathan Quick recede from the limelight, it's far from certain that Connor Hellebuyck will inherit the Mantle of Responsibility America's top active goaltender. Perhaps the biggest obstacle in his way? John Gibson.

Gibson has been heralded as the second coming of goaltending excellence for a while now, and after beginning the season with the AHL San Diego Gulls, Anaheim's early season struggles opened the door to his return. While Frederik Andersen has been okay (currently sporting a .913 SV% and 5-8-5 record on the season), okay wasn't good enough given Anaheim's aforementioned goalscoring woes. In contrast to Andersen, Gibson has played the role of world-beater since his recall in late November, with a .931 SV% and 7-4-2 record. He comes into tonight both rested and on fire, with two straight shutouts to his name. Winnipeg should expect to be stymied early and often.

All Fowled Up: The Anaheim Ducks lost arguably their best defenceman last Sunday, with Cam Fowler suffering a sprained knee and set to miss 4-6 weeks. As Janis Carr of The Orange County Register points out, Fowler "led the Ducks in ice time with an average of 22 minutes and 38 seconds per game and had three goals and nine assists while playing in all 34 games". These stats aren't easily replaced, and it's a situation exacerbated with Simon Despres also injured.

But just as with John Gibson, Anaheim has a top-notch, arguably NHL-ready prospect waiting to step up. Enter Shea Theodore. The highly touted 2013 1st rounder was recalled on Dec. 28th, and while he's still looking for his first NHL point, he's managed to both hold his own and make a favourable impression. Anaheim's banged up d-corps will need that to continue.

Player to Boo Mercilessly

I present to you two options: Kevin Bieksa, for being Kevin Bieksa; and Shea Theodore, for being the best LHD prospect both teams have to offer. Maybe we can trade Byfuglien for him.

Prediction

Anaheim's penchant for scoring just one goal a game comes back to haunt them. Despite an incredible goaltending performance from John Gibson, the Winnipeg Jets manage to score one in the 1st and one in the 3rd, followed by an empty netter.

Jets win 3-1.