Central Division high-flyers Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets face-off against each other at Canada Life Centre on Wednesday looking to make their games in hand over leaders Dallas Stars count.
The Jets (13-6-1) are currently second in the division, one point behind the Stars with two games in hand while the Avalanche (12-6-1) are third and three points off top spot with three less games played.
The Jets failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five seasons in 2021/22 with long-time head coach Paul Maurice stepping down mid-season stating the team needed a new voice.
Assistant Dave Lowry took over, but he couldn’t make the impact hoped for with Winnipeg missing the playoffs by eight points.
Seeking some stability, the Jets turned to experienced Rick Bowness in the off-season after he departed the Stars following three seasons in charge.
The juggernaut Avalanche will provide a stern test for the much-improved Jets and allow them to assess their progress against a reigning cup champion.
Colorado (+525 to retain the Stanley Cup) have scored the eighth most goals per-game in the NHL (3.47) and conceded the third least (2.47) while the Jets have averaged 3.15 goals per-game (16th) and conceded 2.65 (sixth).
If the Jets are to be successful, they must contain the Avalanche’s top stars; Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnn and Cale Makar, who have all scored more points than any Winnipeg player.
Rantanen leads Colorado for goals (13) and points (29), Mackinnon is second with 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) and dynamic defenceman Makar third with 21 points (six goals, 15 assists).
The Jets are led by blue-line Josh Morrissey who is having an outstanding season, so far producing 23 points (four goals, 19 assists). Mark Scheifele leads the team with 11 goals and is playing to his world class best under Bowness.
Winnipeg are -200 to make it back into the playoffs and +2000 to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
The main beneficiary of Bowness’ appointment has been goalie Connor Hellebuyck who will be a challenging puzzle for the Avalanche to solve.
Hellebuyck, 29, has gone 10-5-0 with a .925 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against-average (GAA) showing the form which saw him win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best netminder in 2019/20.
At the opposite end, Alexandar Georgiev made 24 saves for the Avalanche in the game five weeks ago, and after being acquired from the New York Rangers in the off-season has established himself as consistent number-one for Colorado posting a 10-2-1 record, .933 save percentage and 2.29 GAA.
The 26-year-old is +1800 to win the Vezina Trophy this season.
A key factor in the Avalanche winning their first Stanley Cup since 2001 last season was their incredible 9-1-0 road record, which included clinching each series and the cup from Tampa Bay Lightning in games away from home.
They were just the fourth team in NHL history to do that and their 16-4 overall record was the second-best in league history.
Colorado are 7-3-0 on the road this season, and the fixture against the Jets is the first in a four-game road trip.
The Jets are 7-2-0 at home, and so form doesn’t point to an advantage for either, but recent history suggests the Avalanche will prove the toughest test that Winnipeg have faced at Canada Life Centre.
The Winnipeg Jets possess the 10th best penalty kill in the NHL (81.1%) but they mustn’t rely on that against an Avalanche team that have been red hot on their powerplay and lead the league with a 33.8% success rate.
Staying out of the penalty box and limiting Colorado’s chances will be key for Bowness who will no doubt stress the importance of discipline in the game.
Winnipeg’s powerplay sits at 20% and, while a lowly 23rd in the NHL, they may have some success on the man advantage as the Avalanche have struggled on the penalty kill going 77.6% which is 19th in the league.