At just about the midpoint of the season for both teams, the Winnipeg Jets visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.
The Jets kicked off the second half of their season Thursday with a 4-2 win against the Sabres in Buffalo and now go back-to-back with the date in Pittsburgh while firmly in the hunt for the Central Division and Western Conference titles despite a series of injuries.
“I’m pleased with the way that we’ve kind of not looked for excuses when they were staring us right in the face,” Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff told a group of reporters.
“With guys being injured and things like that, they found a way to get back to their roots of the game and do what you need to do to grind out wins.”
Thursday’s game was Winnipeg’s fourth with four of its top players — forwards Blake Wheeler, Cole Perfetti and Nikolaj Ehlers and defenseman Nate Schmidt — back in the lineup. Ehlers had two assists, Schmidt one against the Sabres.
In those four games, the Jets have scored 20 goals and are 3-1.
“When we are healthy, we have a lot of talent through our lineup,” Winnipeg All-Star defenseman Josh Morrissey said.
“With our talented players, I think (offense) is not a concern, but we want to have that attitude to pressure and not give any time and space all over the ice for a full 60 minutes.”
Pittsburgh, which hits its season midpoint after Friday’s game, has won two straight since a six-game losing streak and will be playing the front end of a back-to-back. The Penguins travel to face the Hurricanes on Saturday night.
Through the first half, the Penguins have endured losing streaks of seven and six games, but also a five-game winning streak and a seven-game winning streak.
“I think just consistency,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said of what the team is looking for in the second half.
“I think we know our identity by this point. I think it’s a matter of executing.”
The Penguins’ blue line is somewhat in disarray. Top defenseman Kris Letang not only has been dealing with a lower-body injury since late December, but also is on leave after the death of his father. The other big minutes-eater, Jeff Petry, is on long-term IL and has been skating but has not returned to practice.
“I can’t give you a definitive answer on when Kris is going to return to the team,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Letang. “He’s obviously going through a difficult circumstance right now, and we’re all trying to offer him the space that’s necessary, but also be supportive.”
Supportive to the point that after Sunday’s game in Tempe, Ariz., the Penguins instead of flying home flew all night to Montreal to attend Letang’s father’s funeral.
Pittsburgh defenseman Jan Rutta did not practice Thursday because of what Sullivan called a maintenance day.
The Penguins on Thursday recalled defenseman Taylor Fedun, a journeyman who could make his Pittsburgh debut.
“He’s steady,” fellow Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said of Fedun. “He makes simple plays. He plays hard. Ends cycles. Blocks shots. He just does a lot of little things for the team.”
–Field Level Media