If the Winnipeg Jets ever had a chance to pick up an easy win, it's tonight's game against the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils arrived in Winnipeg early Saturday morning after a 4-2 loss in Minnesota Friday night. It was New Jersey's third straight loss and to make matters worse for the Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur got pulled after just eight minutes of play. Brodeur has struggled lately and the Devils do not look like the team that beat Winnipeg 3-2 in overtime on Nov. 5 in New Jersey. Brodeur is not expected to start tonight. Instead, New Jersey will go with Johan Hedberg, who allowed one goal on 12 shots Friday. Hedberg is well known to Winnipeg fans having once played for the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
The Jets meanwhile didn't play Friday and they've been at home since last Sunday. Winnipeg's last game was a 1-0 win over Phoenix Thursday.
"There are a couple of things that are important in this game tonight," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said this morning. "How well you start is one of them. Who scores first would be nice, but how you react to the goal whether, you score or you receive one, that's a response that we need to be aware of. The other thing that's important in this game here for us is a clean two points and I can't state that enough... We have a day off on Sunday and it would be nice to go into that day off feeling good about things. That would be a really good step for us."
One big challenge for the Jets will be New Jersey forward Ilya Kovalchuk. He didn't play the last time these teams met and Noel is well aware of the difference he can make. Kovalchuk has played in 19 games this season and has six goals and nine assists. He has gotten a point in his last three games.
"If Kovalchuk plays his 'A' game and brings that to the table, you are going to see what makes him special," Noel said. "He can play both sides of that game too. He can be an average player, and doesn't defend, and he can be a player that can really dominate games."
Noel said few defenders can handle the big Russian but he is hoping Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian will be up to the job.
"They can skate and they can handle weight," Noel said. "It depends on Kovalchuk. If he plays a really hard game like that... If he plays that speed game with power, you have your hands full."
The Jets will be without some of key players including Nik Antropov and Eric Fehr, who both have minor injuries. But the team hopes to get back all of its injured players, which includes defencemen Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey and Randy Jones, by the end of the month.
Enstrom has been out since Nov. 3 after he broke his collar bone in a collision with the Florida Panthers' Jack Skille. Enstrom skated this morning in practice and said afterward that he felt good. "I would play tomorrow if I could," he said.