The Winnipeg Jets are playing much better than they did early in the season when they lost two of three to the Nashville Predators.
That’s probably because of the effect Paul Maurice has had since taking over as coach earlier this month.
The Predators figure to face a more formidable opponent this time as they close a four-game trip Tuesday night against the Jets.
The Central Division’s worst teams are separated by one point, with Nashville (23-23-8) winning two meetings in October before falling 5-0 at Winnipeg on Nov. 8.
The Jets (25-24-5) were coached by Claude Noel then, and are 6-1-0 since Maurice took over Jan. 12.
Improvement was evident in Sunday’s 3-1 victory at Chicago, which won the first three meetings by a combined 15-5 margin.
"That win right there is just a great sign of character," Maurice said.
Blake Wheeler scored twice and Chicago native Al Montoya made 34 saves for his first win in his hometown. The Jets were outshot 18-2 in the first period and trailed after two before a three-goal outburst over the final 11:44.
"Anytime you beat the defending champs, it’s special, especially in their building," Wheeler said. "Especially (with) kind of everything we’ve gone through this year. But we’ve played some good hockey lately and to get rewarded for it, get rewarded with two points in this building, that says a lot."
Wheeler has five goals and five assists with Maurice in charge for his most productive seven-game stretch of the season.
"He’s a real, real dominant force from what I’ve seen and he’s going to be a big part of this group for a long time," the coach said.
Winnipeg is 3-0-0 at home under Maurice, and Nashville will be hoping to avoid further lingering effects from two straight defeats.
The Predators blew a two-goal lead in the third period of Friday’s 5-4 shootout loss to Calgary and fell 5-1 to Edmonton on Sunday.
"I’m quite disappointed," coach Barry Trotz said. "We had a game in Calgary the other day and let a point slip away, and we had it 1-1 late in the first (against the Oilers) and I thought we would be in good shape."
Winnipeg has shown it isn’t afraid to use its bodies this season. The Jets rank among the NHL’s leaders with 27.57 hits per game and 15.52 blocked shots per contest.
The Predators block a lot of shots with 15.31 per game but are less physical with an average of 19.70 hits.
Nashville will have to be wary of Evander Kane, who averages 4.1 shots on goal to rank among the NHL’s best.
Kane can be expected to put pressure on the Predators’ defensive pairing of Shea Weber and Roman Josi. That duo ranks among the league’s leaders in average ice time, with Weber at 26:54 and Josi at 26:04.
Josi is tied for the team lead with eight points over the last seven games, with Weber adding six.