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First place in the Central Division is on the line tonight as the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators face off for the final time in the regular-season.
Winnipeg (44-26-4) begins the night two points ahead of Nashville (42-27-6) and can clinch a playoff spot with a victory. The Jets have eight games left, the Predators seven.
“It’s kind of like a playoff game I’d say. We’ve had some pretty good games against each other, some exciting games. This one’s going to be an important one tonight,” said Nikolaj Ehlers following the morning skate at Bell MTS Place.
The flashy winger gets a promotion tonight to the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Ehlers was with that group earlier this season, only to suffer a shoulder injury on Jan. 4. This will be his first time back with them since returning to action a month ago.
“I think I played some real good hockey when I played with those two. And then I got injured and then I got back, and I haven’t really gotten back to that level yet. All of it is on me,” said Ehlers, who has 19 goals and 16 assists this season.
“I gotta get back to playing that way that I did before the injury. With those two, the passes they make, the reads, the plays, all that, they’re two great players. I’m going to do my best to get back to where I was. It’s got to start now.”
Patrik Laine drops down to the second line to play with Kevin Hayes and Kyle Connor. The third line of Adam Lowry between Bryan Little and Brandon Tanev remains intact, while Matt Hendricks comes into the lineup to play on the fourth line with Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s kind of become a bit of a rivalry over the last few years. They’re a big heavy team, we’re a big heavy team. You get those hard-fought games, those corner battles, those pucks down low behind the net. I’m looking forward to it. A big challenge,” said Hendricks, who replaces Jack Roslovic. Par Lindholm will be the other healthy scratch.
On defence, Nathan Beaulieu returns after a two-game injury absence on the top-pairing with Jacob Trouba. Joe Morrow, who struggled in that role in Thursday’s 5-0 loss in Vegas, is out. The other two pairs of Dmitry Kulikov-Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot-Sami Niku remain the same. Bogdan Kiselevich is the other healthy scratch on the blue-line.
Connor Hellebuyck starts in goal tonight for the Jets, with Eric Comrie backing him up. Laurent Brossoit suffered a lower-body injury in Thursday’s game but got good news on Friday, according to coach Paul Maurice.
“Off a test yesterday we’ll just list him as day-to-day, and hope it’s not too long,” said Maurice.
In other injury news, both Dustin Byfuglien (ankle) and Josh Morrissey (shoulder) skated on their own this morning prior to the main group hitting the ice.
“Buff’s been on the ice since Wednesday. He skates, if he feels real good the next day, he’ll start thinking about morning skates and start building toward contact. Josh is still a ways from that contact part of it, but he’s back full-on skating now. He won’t come off the ice now because he’ll be back as a full skater, and we’ll get him into gold (non-contact jersey) here in the near future,” said Maurice.
He expects Byfuglien to return to action before the regular-season ends two weeks from now, while Morrissey may be more of a long shot.
“I’m thinking we’re not going to push it. Talking to him this morning, he said, ‘I feel great for this time of year.’ We’d much rather have him play right now, but he plays big and heavy minutes. So his legs are strong and he’s feeling pretty good,” said Maurice.
Winnipeg has taken two of three games from Nashville this season, including the only other meeting at Bell MTS Place.
“You know what the answer’s going to be: it’s a huge game if you win it. If not you shake it off and go to the next one. I’ll tell you what: why don’t we just say it’s as close to a playoff game as you’re going to get,” said Maurice.
“We viewed our March like that, in terms of how we handled our wins and losses. We left our losses there. We took what we could learn from them but we didn’t put a lot of emotion into a loss so that we can come back and play hard the next day.”
This is the start of the final homestand of the year. Winnipeg will also host Dallas, the New York Islanders and Montreal over the next week before hitting the road for the final four games of the season.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.