When the Phoenix Coyotes (13-7-3) take the ice tonight against the reincarnated Winnipeg Jets (9-11-4) franchise, there will definitely be more than points in the standings at stake. Two teams heading in different directions will drop the puck surrounded by a sellout crowd at MTS Centre, and 15,000 of Manitoba’s most rabid hockey fans are sure to make their loyalties clear. The return of Doaner and the Coyotes to the whitewashed wastelands of Winnipeg, some 15 years after their sudden departure to the desert, marks the only opportunity Jets fans have this season to exorcise the demons of relocation. You can expect the intensity to be ratcheted up from the first shift, both on the ice and in the stands, as the crowd’s enthusiasm will undoubtedly inspire the Jets to try and win one for the Winnipeg faithful. Unfortunately for Jets fans, the jerseys they’ll be cheering on will be worn by a rag-tag collection of defunct Atlanta Thrashers and NHL castoffs, while the visiting team appears to be hitting its stride.
Sandwiched around an uncharacteristic 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks, the Desert Dogs have played perhaps their most impressive three games of this young season. In defeating the Anaheim Ducks by a margin of 4-2 last Wednesday, the Coyotes channeled their opponent’s Disney heritage, dazzling the once mighty Ducks with an array of tic-tac-toe passing plays and confident shooting. Radim Vrbata paced the scoring in that game, collecting a pair of cleverly executed goals, while the rest of Phoenix’s offensive stars (Keith Yandle: 1G, 1A, Shane Doan: 2 A) started to heat up. After the home loss to Vancouver, the ‘Yotes promptly avenged two bitter, last-minute defeats to rival Dallas, shutting the Stars out 3-0 behind a stellar performance in net by Mike Smith. On Tuesday night, Phoenix hit the road in a tough matchup with the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks. Dave Tippet’s coaching prowess was put on display in this one, and by adjusting Phoenix’s forechecking strategy to put more pressure on Chicago’s lumbering defensemen, Tip guided the ‘Yotes to a decisive 4-1 victory. Phoenix now finds itself in a familiar position after three seasons under Tippet’s stewardship: Climbing to the top of the division and conference standings and confounding their critics along the way.
The Jets, on the other hand, have dropped their last two decisions to put a damper on their recent run of success. After winning 3 of their last 4 games, with the only loss coming in OT at the hands of the high-powered Washington Capitals, the Jets have lost two straight because of their sieve-like goaltending. Netminder Ondrej Pavelec and his .896 save percentage have contributed to the Jets’ atrocious team Goals Against Average of 3.30/game, which ranks 29th in the league. Facing a hot Coyotes squad filled with confident snipers like Ray Whitney, Daymond Langkow and even Keith Yandle, the crazed home crowd in Winnipeg could soon be silenced by a Coyotes scoring spree if Pavelec is not sharp.
On the injury front, Phoenix will be without the services of Kurt Sauer (concussion) and Michal Rozsival (facial injury), while the Jets’ Ron Hainsey, Nik Antropov, Tobias Enstrom (collarbone), Randy Jones (ankle), and Derek Meech (lower body) will all be in street clothes. Fans can tune into Fox Sports Net Arizona at 6:30pm local time to catch the action, and if you’re looking for some chills to match the chilly December weather, check in early enough for the singing of the national anthem. This matchup of star crossed franchises is sure to inspire a bit of Canadian pride, with Winnipeg fans likely to sing their hearts out in celebration of hockey’s return home.