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Western turmoil: Injuries nag Jets, Wild in home stretch, while Smith’s return could ignite Flames

As we head into the home stretch, the Jets and Wild face injury concerns as they battle for second spot in the Central. Meanwhile, the return of Flames netminder Mike Smith could be the key to Calgary returning to the playoffs.

Paul Maurice wasn’t making any excuses for his battered and bruised Jets following their Tuesday loss to the Nashville Predators, only going as far to say post-game that he was happy with the effort Winnipeg put forth across the final 40 minutes of the 3-1 defeat. If Maurice wanted to bring up how injuries have impacted the Jets, though, no one would have blamed him.

Heading into that contest, Winnipeg’s injured list was already lengthy and significant, possibly more so than that of any other team in the playoff hunt at this point in the campaign. Just go down the list. On Tuesday, the Jets were set to be without Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry and Matt Hendricks, which, depending on Maurice’s lineup decisions, meant Winnipeg entered action without three of their top four centers. They also entered the tilt without the services of defensemen Jacob Trouba, Toby Enstrom and Dmitry Kulikov. Backup goaltender Steve Mason, who likely would have gotten the start, was also on the shelf.

Before Tuesday was through, too, the injury bug took another big bite. First, it was center Paul Stastny who headed for the press box, taken out of lineup just ahead of game time in order to nurse a lower-body injury. And after three successive goals against, netminder Michael Hutchinson was yanked and sent to the dressing room with an upper-body injury, later diagnosed as a concussion. 

So, yeah, Winnipeg wasn’t exactly at full strength heading into their contest against Nashville, a meeting that was crucial the Jets’ chase of top spot in the Central Division. And even though they appear to be getting slightly healthier — Stastny will return to the lineup Thursday and Trouba may, as well — the ailments plaguing the Jets could make the home stretch of the season rockier than anyone in Winnipeg would have hoped.

The injury of most consequence, of course, is that of the Jets’ top-line center Scheifele. Already sidelined earlier in the year, Scheifele has been out of action for the past four contests due to another knock to his upper body, and while he’s set for contact on the weekend, there’s no clear timeline on his return. Scheifele’s absence puts the onus on Blake Wheeler to skate big minutes down the middle of the ice and out of his natural position, not to mention forces Maurice to throw his lines in a blender in an attempt to get his team rolling after three losses in a row. It certainly doesn’t help matters, either, that Winnipeg is pulling from the oft-scratched members of the big club and the AHL round out the bottom-six. Having Lowry back, in particular, would be a boon for the Jets right now, with his ability to play middle-six minutes giving Winnipeg at least some semblance of the quality they’ve become accustomed to at center this season.

But the defensive ailments, those to Trouba, Kulikov and Enstrom, have proven just as costly. The three rearguards have combined for roughly 56 minutes of ice time per night — an average of nearly 19 minutes per defender — and have thrown a wrench in the regular order of things on the Jets’ blueline. Since Trouba fell injured in late January, Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Josh Morrissey have all averaged nearly 21-plus minutes per game, with Morrissey (20:51) on the low end and Byfuglien (25:38) doing the heavy lifting. That’s far from the ideal situation for a team looking to use what runway they have left to attempt to chase down the Predators and earn home-ice advantage not just for the first round, but should the two teams continue on their apparent collision course in Round 2.

WILD LOSE STURGEON FOR AT LEAST FOUR WEEKS
The Jets are no doubt lamenting their losses, but the good news — if you can call it that — is that Winnipeg is seemingly locked into at least second spot in the Central barring a catastrophic collapse over the final four weeks. Nowhere near secure, however, are the third-place Minnesota Wild, and the ground beneath coach Bruce Boudreau’s club may have gotten a bit shakier following the loss of defenseman Jared Spurgeon.

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Spurgeon fell injured Tuesday, colliding with the boards in Minnesota’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche and suffering a partial tear of his right hamstring, and there couldn’t have been a more ill-timed loss for the Wild. Though he’s not about to garner any Norris Trophy attention, Spurgeon has been fantastic for Minnesota this season as the second-in-command on the blueline behind Ryan Suter.

The diminutive defender’s contributions at both ends of the ice have been immensely underrated — he’s skating upwards of 24 minutes per night, including big minutes on both special teams units — and his offensive impact has been significant on a team that hasn’t had the depth of scoring necessary to keep pace with the Jets and Predators. Through 61 games, Spurgeon has chipped in nine goals and 37 points, including 13 points on the man advantage, and it’s evident how much he has excelled when digging into his underlying numbers.

Of the 94 rearguards to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Spurgeon’s Corsi for percentage doesn’t stand out all that much as he ranks 49th (50.2 percent), but his shots for percentage (53.1), scoring chances for percentage (53.8) and high-danger chances for percentage (62.9) rank 14th, 12th and first, respectively. Those are impressive numbers on a blueline that has struggled at times this season.

Without Spurgeon, the Wild will have to lean even harder on Suter, if that’s even possible. The workhorse defender is already averaging nearly 27 minutes per night while skating in all situations. However, with the playoffs on the line, would anyone be surprised to see Suter play more than half a contest in the coming weeks? He has, after all, eclipsed the 30-minute mark nine times this season.

SMITH’S RETURN GIVES CALGARY CREASE THE CONSISTENCY THEY LACK
It’s not all bad news for the West’s potential playoff teams, though, as Calgary saw Mike Smith return from injury on Sunday after missing 13 games with a groin injury. His first night back didn’t go according to plan — the Flames dropped a 5-2 decision to the New York Islanders — but Smith appeared to rediscover his form Tuesday when he posted a 28-save shutout against the rival Edmonton Oilers. And Smith’s play Tuesday is reason for Calgary to have hope they can get right back into Pacific Division race or earn a wild-card berth in the West.

Despite the play of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano over the past two-and-a-half months, the Flames’ playoff push was significantly hindered over the past four weeks by the absence of Smith, particularly with the goaltending duo of David Rittich and Jon Gillies unable to provide any consistency in the crease. Across the 13 games Calgary was without Smith, the Flames duo allowed 40 goals against and .900 save percentage — numbers that must have given the fans and front office flashbacks to past seasons when goaltending was what sunk Calgary’s hopes.

With Smith’s return, though, the Flames should once again be in line to get the level of goaltending commensurate with a playoff contender. In the two games since his return, Smith has posted a .926 SP, but more importantly boosted his season-long SP to .922. In the post-new year portion of the schedule, Smith has also been one of the league’s top-tier netminders. There are 32 goaltenders who have played 15 or more games since Jan. 1, and Smith is tied for eighth with a .924 SP, only two-thousandths of a point back of moving into a four-way tie for fifth spot.

That level of netminding added to Calgary’s offense, which has come on much stronger in recent weeks, could give the Flames the small edge necessary to sneak Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas or Los Angeles and earn a berth in the post-season for a second consecutive season.

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