Since their move up North from Atlanta, three seasons ago, the Jets and Habs have clashed a total of eight times during regular season play. The Habs have won seven of those battles, nearly all in convincing fashion, and lost only when Randy Cunneyworth unwisely benched Lars Eller and P.K. Subban during the dark times of the 2011-12 season.
The Jets have maintained a very similar nucleus since they gave up the Thrashers name, and have yet to enjoy a playoff berth since they moved to Winnipeg. This season, the Jets' uphill battle was made a little steeper, as realignment forced them into a deep Western Conference. Outgunned and faltering in fast-paced playoff race, the Jets finally made a change, unloading head coach Claude Noel and bringing in veteran NHL bench boss Paul Maurice.
The move has appeared to pay early dividends. The Jets have seven wins and two losses since Maurice set up shop, a far cry from the 19-23-5 record that the Jets earned in the Noel-coached first portion of the season. Broadcasters have spoken to confidence and accountability, and the implementation of a system where everyone knows their role.
Maurice has made his mark on the team in a couple of ways, promoting character guys Chris Thorburn and Mark Stuart to the second line and pair, respectively, while putting Dustin Byfuglien up front to add some offensive punch to the top six. Maurice has also decided on a top line, uniting captain Andrew Ladd with center Brian Little and winger Michael Frolik, effectively spreading out the Jets' scoring options.
So, what has all of this accomplished? Is Paul Maurice a genius? Are the Habs in trouble this afternoon?
On paper, probably not. Try as he might, the problem in Winnipeg appears to be talent more so than configuration, and while Maurice has made some improvements, it looks like the Jets just don't have the horses to make a true playoff push this season. The Jets defence is shallow, and reallocating Byfuglien means that all three of Mark Stuart, Keaton Ellerby, and Adam Pardy have full time defense duties in the top six. Stuart's elevation is particularly egregious, a player who who Arctic Ice Hockey qualified as "possession black hole" and undeserving a role in the top four. Of course, they also mentioned that he's not quite as bad as Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon.
The problem of a shallow pool of defenders is exacerbated by the play of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, is among the NHL's worst starting keepers. Pavelec clearly has Maurice's confidence, as he has started all nine games since Maurice took over.
Pavelec has justified Maurice's approval at times, playing a few of his best games of the season and holding teams like the Blackhawks and Sharks to one goal each. On the whole, however, Pavelec is typically unable to maintain this type of play from game to game, and his overall standard of accomplishment for the season is brutal. Pavelec is a near lock for three goals against per game, and ranks in 60th place league-wide in even strength save percentage, just behind little known Pittsburgh Penguins backup Jeff Zatkoff at .910. In fact, since the Jets came to Portage and Main (and again, except for the stupid Cunneyworth game), the Habs have never failed to put at least three past Czech netminder.
Hockey Reference estimates that average play on the part of Pavelec would have saved the Jets 16 goals so far this year, making Pavelec approximately as bad for Winnipeg as Tuukka Rask has been good for Boston. If only the Jets had a reliable backup, like say, Al Montoya, that could help out.
Bashing on the defensive side of the puck aside, the Jets do have some depth up front, and can roll three pretty solid lines in their top nine. Byfuglien's size and shooting talent are a nice addition to the Jets' forward group, and with the aforementioned top line rolling, more space is available for players Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane, who previously played together and were subsequently put under microscopic defensive focus.
The reality of the Jets back-end is that they're going to need a few goals to win most nights, but against Montreal, their forward depth might give them a chance to do it. Montreal is going to have to find a way to spread out and cover the Jets first three lines, a task they should be well-suited to but have struggled with since the addition of Douglas Murray on the third pair coincided with a post-injury slump for Alexei Emelin. Carey Price might just have his hands full for the second time in 24 hours.