When the Winnipeg Jets fired Claude Noel as coach back on Jan. 12 they had lost five straight, were 19-23-5 and 10 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. But the Winnipeg Jets that visit Verizon Center Thursday night are far from that wayward bunch.
Since Paul Maurice took over as interim head coach, the Jets have gone 9-2-0 and now are just two points out of a playoff position in the West. As perhaps the hottest team in the NHL, they will be a challenge to the Capitals, who are still struggling to play a consistent 60 minutes.
“I think the biggest thing for them is obviously a breath of fresh air. They seem to have a little more organization to their game,” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said. “They’re getting some breaks and they’re riding a high right now.”
One of Maurice’s alterations has been to play big Dustin Byfuglien – listed at 6-feet-5, 266 pounds – back at forward. Byfuglien played wing for the Chicago Blackhawks at the beginning of his career and won a Stanley Cup in 2010 with them but was moved to defense in 2010-11, his first year with the Atlanta Thrashers.
He’s played defense since then, even as the franchise moved to Winnipeg, but Maurice put the imposing Byfuglien back up front. His presence alone will pose a challenge for the Capitals’ defense.
“He’s a big strong man, huge man, once he gets going down the wing makes it very difficult for the ‘D’,” Oates said. “You’re not going to be able to knock him off the puck. You’ve got to skate, you’ve got to skate and wait until he runs out of real estate and then pounce on him. We need the second man to get in there fast because he’s one of the guys that has the capabilities of being elusive and beating the first guy so our second guy’s got to be there.”
On the bright side for the Capitals is that Evander Kane, who has posted 10 goals and 15 points in 21 games against Washington in his career, is out with an infected right hand and will not be in the lineup for Winnipeg.
>> Michal Neuvirth gets the nod against the Jets and will make his fourth consecutive start.
>> One significant switch for the Capitals’ lines up front is that Casey Wellman will start the game as second line center between Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer as Oates looks for more of an offensive spark.
>> Projected lineups for both teams
Andrew Ladd – Bryan Little – Michael Frolik
Chris Thorburn – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Devin Setoguchi – Olli Jokinen – Dustin Byfuglien
Eric Tangradi – James Wright – Anthony Peluso
Tobias Enstrom – Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart – Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy – Keaton Ellerby
Ondrej Pavelec will start, Al Montoya will back up.