The Winnipeg Jets host the St. Louis Blues in the third game of their seven-game home stand, and as early as it may seem, this divisional game is an already important one for both teams. The Central Division is arguably the most competitive one in the NHL, with a mere three points separating first from fourth. Both teams enter the contest off losses, the Jets 2-0 to the New York Islanders, while the Blues dropped a 4-1 decision to the Anaheim Ducks. With a win, either team could find themselves in first place by the end of the night.
The Minnesota Wild, the Blues, and the Jets rank one, two, and three, respectively, in the Central, and if it were not for a razor-thin offside by the Jets’ Kyle Connor that wiped out an empty net goal against the Wild in October, the three teams would be tied with seven wins and an overtime loss. This is going to be another in a long line of tough games for the Jets, and with 11 games under their belt, here are three things to keep an eye on.
Jets’ Comrie is Able to Defend Against the Blues
Connor Hellebuyck, who has been away from the team for the birth of his son, and now an illness, could be between the pipes for the team’s game against the Blues. At this time that is still unknown, as Hellebuyck has tested negative for COVID-19 but had to remain absent from the team until his symptoms clear. (From: “Hellebuyck remains sidelined with illness, Comrie to start second straight”, The Belleville Intelligencer, 05/11/21)
If Hellebuyck is not back, look for Eric Comrie to stand tall for the Jets. The 6-foot-1 netminder has done everything asked of him this season, and early skepticism about his inclusion on the roster has been pushed aside for now. He has started the Jets’ last three games, and has done a superb job. After four games this season, he’s 3-1, has a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.98, and a save percentage (SV%) of .926. Compare those numbers to Hellebuyck, who has a 3.42 GAA and a .899 SV% in seven games, and it’s clear Comrie has done his job. If the Jets starter is unavailable for a fourth straight contest, look for Comrie to hold the Jets in the game versus the Blues.
Wheeler and Scheifele Need to Score
The Jets’ trio of Connor, Andrew Copp and Pierre-Luc Dubois have done almost all the heavy lifting when it comes to the team’s offence. They have totalled 16, 12 and 11 points respectively which accounts for 37% of the Jets’ total offence. That’s an imbalance that a team with self-admitted depth needs to rectify.
Now to say that Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler have had a normal start to the season would be a huge exaggeration. Scheifele missed the opening game of the season due to completing his four-game playoff suspension from last season, then both he and Wheeler got hit with NHL COVID protocols after testing positive, each after playing only two games. To date the duo is scoreless, and has amassed a combined five assists.
Both players, undeniably the leaders of the club, have been at the forefront of the Jets’ scoring for the past number of seasons, and were expected to do so again. Wheeler, now 36, is starting to shows signs of slowing, but Scheifele, who is a Canadian Olympic candidate, has been more than a point-per-game for the past six seasons. Should these guys start scoring, the Jets’ chances for success simply increase. Their offensive depth and skill is much too potent to be relying on three players, and is just not sustainable. These two guys need to start doing what they’re paid to do (From, “Scheifele, Wheeler yet to hit stride”, The Winnipeg Free Press, 08/11/21), put the puck in the net.
The Defence Needs to Focus on Reducing Chances
No one is going to argue the skill and ability of the Jets’ blueliners. They are every bit as talented and physical as have been advertised, but the problems from the past two seasons still exist. In the first 11 games of the season, the Jets have allowed 31.4 shots per game, slightly up from last year when they allowed 30.7. 11 games does not make a season, but it certainly can indicate a trend. The issue adds to the issue of offensive imbalance as they are giving up two more shots per game than they take.
Last year Hellebuyck erased a lot of defensive mistakes with his exceptional play, and to date he has not consistently been able to do that this season. Add the fact that Comrie has started three, and now possibly four consecutive games, and it’s time for the blue line corp to get in sync. The Jets cannot rely on outscoring their opposition every night, as the loss on Saturday to the Islanders showed vividly.
All 3 Need to Focus for a Jets Victory
The Blues are no better on the defensive end, and are giving up 32.5 shots per game, but much like the Jets, they can score. They are currently fourth in the league in goals-for at nearly four per game. If the Jets are going to win this contest, three things need to happen: Goaltending needs to be solid, Wheeler and Scheifele need to light the lamp, and the defence needs to shut down the Blues offensive prowess. Trends are exactly that, but the Jets’ season is 11 games in, and a these things need to tighten up before the trend becomes the norm.
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.