Fans and media, we look at the standings. But coaches and players, they’re more worried about how their team is playing in the moment.
Take the Edmonton Oilers, for instance. They woke up seven points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the North Division standings on Wednesday, yet they have a better record than Toronto going way back to Jan. 29.
So Toronto earned their first-place standing with those three February wins in Edmonton and a January record of 7-2-1 compared to Edmonton’s 5-6. Fair and square.
But more than what the standings say, for these guys it is about finding your game when the important time of the year arrives.
For Edmonton, which has the best record in the North over the past three months (25-10-3), that process is well underway. For Winnipeg, a team that has lost four straight and was waxed 6-1 by Edmonton on Monday, the search for that game is still being conducted.
The Jets and Oilers seem a lock for a first-round matchup, so the fact that Edmonton has won the last five meetings going into Wednesday's season series finale makes for several burners on high under the Jets’ bench tonight.
“You’d like to establish a bit of a game plan that you have confidence going into not just a playoff series but any game. That’s what we’re trying to do,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “Giving Connor McDavid four breakaways in a hockey game? You’re not going to go very far doing that.
“There are some things we’ve done all year that have given us success and we just haven’t done them against these guys yet. So hopefully we can push in that direction tonight. The result is going to be what it’s going to be, but hopefully we can build some confidence in that game.”
It's a big picture moment for the Jets, but a small picture one for Edmonton tonight. An Edmonton win would be cash in the bank -- a chance to plant a seed of doubt prior to Round 1. For Winnipeg, a win tonight would be nice. But if it doesn’t lead to finding their overall game, it won’t help much.
“We expect a really tight game. A hard game tonight,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “Just because there were a couple of highlight-reel plays that put you in front, doesn’t mean that you actually played a real good game. We have lots to improve from that game. We capitalized on some chances… but we gave up too much in certain situations.”
How They’ll Line Up
It looks like Tippett has chosen to start Mikko Koskinen in goal Wednesday, with Mike Smith likely to get the start Thursday at home against the Calgary Flames. Smith stayed out late after the morning skate for extra work on Wednesday, while Koskinen was the first goalie to leave the ice.
The rest of the lineup should be identical to Monday’s, though Tippett did say he’ll mix in some different defencemen through his team’s final 10 games to knock some rust off of players like Slater Koekkoek and Evan Bouchard. We’ll assume he’ll do the same for his forwards as well.
Here is how Edmonton lines up tonight:
Kahun, McDavid, Puljujarvi
Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, Yamamoto
Neal, Haas, Chiasson
Shore, McLeod, Archibald
Jets head coach Paul Maurice will also keep his lineup the same, including goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who has one last chance to solve an Oilers team that has given him fits this season and throughout his career.
Hellebuyck is 2-4 against Edmonton this season, with a .870 save percentage and a sky-high 4.29 goals-against average. His career numbers vs. Edmonton aren’t much better: a 9-9-1 record, 3.43 GAA and a save percentage of .892.
He may be the reigning Vezina winner, but any edge over Smith has been lost this season, where Smith has posted a 4-0 mark against the Jets with a 2.06 GAA and a .936 save percentage.
Here are the Jets’ lines:
Copp, Scheifele, Appleton
Connor, Dubois, Wheeler
Vesalainen, Stastny, Perreault
Harkins, Thompson, Lewis
Race to 100
McDavid is on a tidy run, with a four-game points streak where he is averaging three points per game. He sits with 81 points with 10 games left to play, so he’ll need to average two points per game to reach the magical 100-point mark.
He has been a particular thorn in Winnipeg’s side, with 19 points in the eight games they’ve played against each other this season. But Jordie Benn says it’s not just about shutting down No. 97
“They’ve got dynamic players all through their lineup,” said Benn. “They talk about McDavid and Draisaitl a lot, but their whole team through the lineup is pretty good. They come at you hard and when you make mistakes, they capitalize on it. So we’ve just got to take care of it tonight.”
The Jets need to settle their game down and not try to beat the Oilers the same way Edmonton beat them on Monday.
“The risk profile is real,” Maurice said. “If you’re running a higher risk game, there is a higher risk that it’s going to work against you. You’ll get a pay off every once in a while, so we’ll score a goal and that’s exciting. But you give up four or five clean rush chances against the Edmonton Oilers and the people they have, you lose 6-1.”