WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Hands up, who had the Winnipeg Jets in second place in the Central Division in mid-December and the Chicago Blackhawks in sixth?
Thursday night’s match between the clubs at Bell MTS Place could go a long way to determining whether a changing of the guard is underway in the Western Conference.
The Jets appear to have steadied the ship after three straight road losses last week with a home victory over Vancouver on Monday night while the Blackhawks may be heating up with consecutive wins over the Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes. While those three teams aren’t going to be mistaken for the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, a win is a win.
While the Jets have made the playoffs only once since relocating from Atlanta in 2011, the Blackhawks have won Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
Perhaps the most puzzling piece of Chicago’s season is how a power play featuring Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov up front with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the points can be ranked 29th in the NHL after converting 2 of 30 in its last eight games.
Maybe they’d get a jolt by inserting rookie forward Alex DeBrincat on the top unit. The 19-year-old is second on the team in points (23) and goals (12). It might help if Toews knew who he was. The captain pretended to be confused when asked about him on Wednesday.
“I had to think about who Alex was for a second,” Toews joked to The Chicago Tribune. “I’ve heard ‘Kitty’ or ‘Brinker.’ I haven’t heard anyone call him Alex yet.”
“I’m one of those guys that likes to talk a lot on the bench and just communicate as far as what we need to do — sometimes maybe to a fault, where I make some young guys like that think too much,” Toews said.
But that’s not the case with DeBrincat, whom Toews called a “smart player” with or without the puck.
The Jets welcomed goaltender Steve Mason back to the roster Monday after he was out for a couple weeks with a concussion, the second of his career. Coach Paul Maurice hasn’t said when the 29-year-old will get his next start but this weekend’s back-to-back games against St. Louis is a possibility.
Failing that, it’s hard not to see him starting at least once on the upcoming three-game road trip to Nashville, Boston and the New York Islanders.
“You definitely don’t want to get any more,” Mason told The Winnipeg Free Press about concussions after practice Wednesday. “But I feel if you handle them properly, you know the organization was great in terms of making sure that I was coming back when everything was all good. But at the same time, it’s your brain and you hope you don’t get any more.”
The Jets’ Blake Wheeler (team highs of 30 assists and 38 points) was kept off the scoresheet in Monday’s 5-1 victory over Vancouver after recording 10 points (two goals) in the previous five games.