It’s not a magnification to say that Saturday’s afternoon game against the Nashville Predators was the biggest game of the 2022-23 season. The Winnipeg Jets came into this game having won only 4 of their last 15 games and had relinquished their once comfortable position atop the Central Division.
Conversely, Nashville came into this game rolling – going 9-5-1 in their last 15. Having been sellers at the trade deadline and fielding a depleted roster, the Predators are an anomaly – operating with lowered expectations to close the year.
It was a relief then to get the overtime win and gain a point on a Predators team with 3 games in hand. This game was as close to a playoff game as you get in the regular season, and the Jets came to play from the onset, outshooting the Predators 13-3 in the first. What else did we learn in Nashville other than Kevin Sawyer seems to really love country music:
Anecdotally, Juuse Saros seems to play his best hockey against the Jets. It’s safe to say most Jets fans have a frothy sports hate for the Nashville goalie. While his record against Winnipeg is a modest 4-4-2 for his career, he boasts a healthy 2.29 GAA and .932 Save Percentage over that span. Connor Hellebuyck has a record of 12-8-2 against the Predators with a 2.58 GAA and .924 Save Percentage.
This was a low-event hockey game but the Jets dominated the high-danger chances and shots in general. Saros didn’t have to contend with traffic in front of him, and it wasn’t until 7 minutes into the 3rd that the Jets got their first goal on a blast from Nik Ehlers. Saros won the Goals Saved Above Expected battle and was the 1st star for the Predators.
2. The Winnipeg Jets’ PLD hasn’t yet returned to form
PLD was back after having sat two consecutive stints over the past month. His rust showed in the first 5 minutes of the game as he fanned on a tap-in ‘gimmie’ off a feed from Nik Ehlers. To add insult to injury, the Predators immediately came down and opened the score on the ensuing play.
PLD still doesn’t look like the PLD that started the season. The timing is off (to be expected), but more importantly, the ‘jam’ that makes PLD special is noticeably lacking. PLD is at his best when he’s walking a fine line between aggressive and reckless. He finished the night with an assist on the game-winning goal, and had a solid overall effort- but that extra edge is still missing.
3. The powerplay for the Winnipeg Jets struggles
The Winnipeg Jets powerplay went 0 for 4 and struggled for consistency. Blake Wheeler continues to play on the first power play unit which has been dominating 75% of the powerplay minutes. It is just inexplicable that Wheeler continues to play top minutes on the PP over Ehlers:
The prevailing argument is that Ehlers is needed to anchor the 2nd unit – but giving that group 30 seconds per man advantage negates their ability to have any sustained success. In the first period, Ehlers had an absolutely brutal shift to close out a powerplay. He was a turnover machine. That said, it’s important not to be swayed by the Law of Small Numbers. Overall, Ehlers is a much better option than Wheeler on the first unit.
4. Winnipeg Jets’ Morgan Barron is playing well and Neal Pionk is not
Morgan Barron is the real deal. He has surprising speed and is sound defensively (especially on the penalty kill). His statistical profile isn’t great, as his lack of finishing really hampers his overall metrics, but he has been one of the most consistent Jets forwards over the past 3 games:
Any and all 3rd and 4th line contributions are welcome for the Jets if they want to salvage this playoff push. Barron was good once again in this one and deserves more ice time moving forward.
Neal Pionk is just straight-up not very good at hockey anymore. That sounds harsh obviously, but he was once again last in One-Ice Expected Goal Differential and was primarily responsible for Nashville’s second goal. He is also in the bottom 40 of the league in GAR:
Even with his game-winning goal, the Jets have to shelter his minutes to close the season.
5. The Winnipeg Jets are struggling to score and the next steps
Firstly, the Winnipeg Jets are snakebit. Call in an exorcist, or engage a shaman to help get their goal-scoring juju back. The puck is not cooperating at all. They fought hard and deserved this win, but this game shouldn’t have been this close.
So, what’s next? The Jets have the 9th easiest schedule in the league according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s model. The good news, the Predators have the 2nd worst strength of schedule (SOS). The bad news – Calgary has the 4th easiest SOS, Colorado the 1st, and Seattle the 5th.
After a brutal slate against some of the top teams in the league, the Jets now have some hopefully cake matchups against the Blues, Coyotes, and Ducks. The Jets gained a much-needed point against their division rivals and hopefully can carry that momentum into closing this season strong.