Taking a look at tonight's opposing team, the Winnipeg Jets we see a deep squad lacking in star power, one that was decent last season but undone by poor goaltending.
Coming into this year the Jets ice largely the same lineup as last season, the most notable addition being center Olli Jokinen. That group was -21 on the year, mainly missing the playoffs due to weak goaltending and sub-par special teams. How does their team this year break down against the Habs?
The Jets don't have much by the way of star power, I wouldn't consider a single player they have for the top 15 for their position except maybe Evander Kane at LW and wing is a low leverage position. But what they lack in quality they make up for in quantity. The squad's top nine is filled with guys with legit offensive ability, largely assembled from the cast offs of other squads. Only Kane, Burmistrov and Little are home grown talent, while the rest of the nine is half made up of the wreckage of the Maple Leafs post lockout dreams, (Wellwood, Antropov and Ponikarovsky) 2 solid wingers acquired by trade (Ladd and Wheeler) and the last proven top six center the Calgary Flames had in their organization (Jokinen).
The Jets prefer to use their 4th line as a sacrificial lamb unit, to play a defensive role and get killed. For the Habs, they would be ideal targets to match Alex Galchenyuk's managed minutes line against. Otherwise it looks like they largely run their top nine in as general use lines.
The main nexus of offensive talent they ice isn't on forward but the Jets top-pairing. Tobias Enstrom has quietly established himself as a quality puck moving defensemen while Dustin Byfuglien is dangerous as a forward/defenseman hybrid. However the two of them are being forced into a shutdown role to cover for their weak 2nd and 3rd pairings behind them.
Normally the Jets have the young and talented Bogosian holding down shutdown minutes and anchoring a second pairing, but his absence from the lineup puts the less ideal Hainsey and Stuart in this role. Hainsey isn't as bad as his reputation, and manages to be a pretty credible 4 but that isn't a strong 2nd pair. They've been getting killed so far on puck possession this year (~-25 Corsi per 60).
Clitsome and Postma are unremarkable 3rd pairing types. They exist to get beaten in the limited minutes they'll play.
Winnipeg prefers to use their top 4 regularly, favouring the top pairing for offensive work and sheltering their 3rd unit.
The Matchup Game:
The Habs chief advantage should be that their top line (Bourque-Plekanec-Gionta) and defense pairing (Markov-Emelin) are probably stronger two-way units than what the Jets can ice. Their weakness being that the Jets 2nd and 3rd lines likely are somewhat superior to what the Habs have in those positions, with Alex Galchenyuk still in rookie mode and David Desharnais line missing the services of possession beast Max Pacioretty
If Therrien is on his game he'll likely want to keep Plekanec and Markov separate for this one, making sure that the Jet's top 2 lines are always covered by one of them but not doubling up much. Desharnais/Eller-Cole and Gorges-Diaz fill up the other high leverage minutes when Montreal's two ES studs are un-available. Galchenyuk should be feed offensive zone faceoffs to take advantage of the Jet's sacrificial offerings.
The Jet's top six is long on size with some offensive skill. The Habs relatively weak 3rd pairing should probably avoid them. No one on the Jets are super dangerous so there shouldn't be a major issue with White's line also soaking up some defensive assignments.
One of the Habs top lines should be facing Hainsey. Good chance they can pin them in their own end and make them pay.
Expect above average but not spectacular PP performance from this group. The key is their top defensive pair who were about 9 corsi per 60 points better that the second pairing D last year and about twice as likely to score a point per unit time.
Stuart and Hainsey were far below average penalty killers last season in both shots and goals against and are Winnipeg's top pairing this year. Antropov and Burmistrov had solid results but Slater and Thorburn were weak just like the defensemen. This group is ripe to be exploited by Andrei Markov's elite play with the man-advantage.
Last year the Jets were a middle of the pack even strength squad with a 50.23% Fenwick Tied and 51.05% Fenwick close rating but were undone by pretty crummy goaltending, resulting in a -4 goal differential 5 on 5. This year they are 48.32% on Fenwick Close with remarkable goaltending to start. I expect that last years results are much better reflection of the quality of this Jets squad than what has occurred so far this year over a small sample of games. I certainly do not believe that Pavalec is a top starter in the NHL for example. On special teams they are above average on powerplay, below average on the penalty kill.
Habs have been strong on ES and special teams to start and Price has been magnificent. I expect they will be marginally better on even strength and should win the special teams battle. Victory will of course depend on random factors but I think MTL comes into the game with the advantage.