Game Time: 7:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN+ (Ch. 285), WGN-AM 720
Duck And Cover With My Yuletide Lover: Arctic Ice Hockey
In what has to be some kind of record, the Hawks will now face their fourth Canadian opponent in their last five home games, and the lone outlier in that set is Minnesota which is basically Canada anyway. Perhaps the schedule makers felt generous in giving United Center crowds bonus anthems in the Spirit of Christmas, with tonight’s game bringing the Winnipeg Jets into town.
At present, the Jets hold down the top wild card (7th seed overall) with 41 points in 34 games, and have actually fared better on the road (9-4-4) than at home (8-6-3). And they’re actually doing things the right way, evolving into some mutated form of the Devils of the Western Conference under Paul Maurice, or at least the Devils of previous years before the ass has fallen out from their season this year. If it feels like Maurice has been around forever it’s because he has, this is already his 16th season coaching and he’s only 47 years old. If nothing else, Maurice gets his teams to play responsibly with the puck, and the Jets have done that, coming into tonight 9th in the league with a 52.3% share of all even strength shot attempts, which is a marked improvement from last year’s even 50% share under Claude Noel.
But what has always been the case in Winnipeg has been substandard goaltending undoing what is a fair amount of offensive talent. To this point in the year, Ondrej Pavalec has at least been serviceable overall, with a .913 save percentage and .919 at evens, mostly buoyed by a .928 November. This month has been another story however, with him crashing back to earth in the form of an .889 clip. That’s led Maurice to go a strict platoon with Michael Hutchinson, who had previously just been hanging around before shutting out the Hawks on November 2nd in just his second appearance of the year. Since then, Hutchinson has accrued a .940 save percentage in 10 subsequent starts, and is giving the Jets what they need. With Pavalec losing at home in OT to the Flyers on Sunday, expect Hutchinson to go in the hopes he’ll once again conjure the devil inside as he did in his last appearance at the UC, and Hutchinson figures to have his hands full again.
In front of whomever is in the Jets crease will be a defensive corps that has been ravaged by injuries. Youngster Jacob Trouba and atom smasher Mark Stuart were both pronounced out until February late last week, and that’s with Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian already on the shelf. With the trail of dead being left, it has forced Maurice to move old friend Dustin Byfuglien back to defense, where he’s been paired with rookie Ben Chiarot. Welcome to the NHL kid, now keep tabs on Baby Huey as he shotguns up the ice. The Jets also dealt for Jay Harrison a few days ago as emergency reinforcements, which likely kills the hopes of being able to ship Rozsival there. Harrison will be paired with Grant Clitsome, because Christmas is the time for giving, even when it’s the gift of cheap jokes.
Among the forwards the Jets are basically still trying to score by committee with the top line of Ladd, Little, and Wheeler all sporting 23 points (or in Little’s case 22). Wheeler in specific sports a team-best 56.7% corsi share, and is the type of forward that’s given either of the top two Hawk pairings problems in the past given his size. Mathieu Perrault has been a nice addition to the Jets’ center depth and has been able to drive possession from the third line. Evander Kane can still be a force of nature on any given shift despite his modest 12 points in 24 games. As a group the Jets have climbed out of the basement as far as team shooting percentage is concerned with only a 6.8% clip, but there is skill here that can take advantage of open looks, as the Hawks found out thirty seconds into the November game.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the lineup will remain the same as it was on Sunday with Brad Richards sitting out again tonight despite taking part in the morning skate. That means there will once again be a second line using the unholy hybrid of Versteeg and Sharp at center, which the Hawks got away with against the Leafs because the Leafs are dog shit defensively. If Versteeg is truly taking the centerman responsibilities other than faceoffs, aside from getting them out against the fourth line the Jets pose a bit of a problem for Verbeauty in neutral ice and the defensive zone. Mark Schiefle and the aforementioned Perrault aren’t bums and can drive play, and any line with the Patricks on it has the potential to get hemmed into its own zone on a given shift. Look for Quenneville to mute the Jets top line by feeding them a healthy dosage of Saad-Toews-Hossa backed by the Swedes on defense.
There hasn’t been official word to this point, but it would stand to reason that Michal Rozsival would see his 18th straight start because of course he deserves it. And with David Rundblad finally getting on the score sheet on Sunday, it appears that the Tim Erixon era has come to a very abrupt end…at least until Rundblad has some kind of horrific giveaway. Corey Crawford will get the cage tonight, looking for his first win in December.
The Jets are far better coached than they have been in the past, but their blue there’s just not a lot that they can do to mask how depleted their blue line is at this point. And with this game being on the road, look for Maurice to set land mines in neutral ice along with 5 bodies to keep the Hawks from gaining speed and exposing his defensemen to getting beat wide. It’ll have to be a patient game the Hawks play, and any shot on Hutchinson right now is a good shot, even if most shots at him lately have tended to disappear. Time to hang the stockings by the chimney with care. Let’s go Hawks.