Chicago Blackhawks Face Surprising Test In Winnipeg Jets

Nov 8, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets right wing Patrik Laine (29) during the second period against the Dallas Stars at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 8, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets right wing Patrik Laine (29) during the second period against the Dallas Stars at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Blackhawks’ Circus Trip gets underway tonight with a matchup against a surprisingly successful opponent

Heading into the Chicago Blackhawks’ annual Circus Trip, who would you have thought would be the three best opponents, as far as points earned? The Blackhawks are facing Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles between tonight and next Saturday.

You’d think it’d be some combination of those last three teams, right? Of course, Edmonton got off to a really hot start, too. But the Jets? They were close to the bottom of the league last season, and outside Patrik Laine, they didn’t do a whole lot to improve.

Well, the Jets are sitting on 18 points, tied for the second most among the Blackhawks’ Circus Trip opponents (San Jose has 18, and Edmonton has 19). It’s good enough for the Central Division’s second spot as well, behind the Blackhawks.

The Jets have given the Blackhawks some trouble in the past, even when the former team was struggling. But now, Chicago will be facing a motivated and successful Winnipeg outfit.

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Jets’ captaincy change didn’t hurt

When Andrew Ladd was traded to Chicago at the 2016 deadline, it meant Winnipeg was without a captain. That could’ve been a huge problem moving forward — at least the process of picking a new one could’ve been.

After all, we’ve seen this year Nashville move captain Shea Weber, only to fall totally flat to start this season.

But this hasn’t been an issue in Winnipeg. Blake Wheeler is coming off a career year, and he took the captaincy and has run with it. He’s fourth on the team with 13 points, and everyone seems to be meshing under his leadership.

The success doesn’t start and end with Wheeler, though. Mark Scheifele has quickly reached 20 points for the season. Laine, a first-round draft pick earlier this year, is trying to prove he is indeed better than Auston Matthews (his claim) by posting 11 goals and 16 points.

Exciting Nikolaj Ehlers is third on the team with 14 points, too. So you see a lot of young, crafty guys filling the nets. This is a good starting point for Winnipeg, and it has the Jets as one of just two teams in the Western Conference with 50 or more goals scored (Blackhawks being the other).

What about the back end?

Of course, it’s often been said that defense wins championships. The Blackhawks saw this to be at least somewhat true last season when their blue line crumbled early in the postseason.

The Jets, for all their apparent offensive prowess, still have no goal differential. While they’ve scored 50 goals, they’ve also allowed 50 goals. The defense is still a work in progress.

We all know what Dustin Byfuglien brings to the table, and that’s kind of been the blueprint for Winnipeg’s back end for a while: big and bruising.

Josh Morrissey is getting his first taste of NHL action, and Jacob Trouba is another youngster. Meanwhile, Paul Postma, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot are all capable NHL defensemen, but they’re nothing to write home about.

And having this uncertainty going on in front of a growing goaltender isn’t the best for business. Connor Hellebuyck has been OK, with a save percentage of .908 and a goals-allowed average of 2.70, so he’s probably better than what Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec.

That being said, he can’t carry this team like some other goalies. So Winnipeg’s current problem starts and ends with the blue line.

What does this mean for the Blackhawks?

This will be a power vs. power matchup. Not in the theme of two sides hitting each other a lot, but more in the theme of whoever scores last will probably will.

This is where the Blackhawks have a distinct advantage, and not necessarily because of any forwards or defenders they carry. The difference is Corey Crawford.

Crow is a goaltender who can carry his team. He’ll come up with far more big saves than Hellebuyck. When two teams are just going bombs away at the opposing goal, the strong goaltender will generally prevail.

Next: Habs, ’Hawks 1-2 In Power Rankings

There’s not necessarily a “biggest game” in this Circus Trip. It’s never an easy road. But the opener against Winnipeg may prove to be a lot more difficult for the Blackhawks than would’ve been previously believed. They do have the tools to pull out another win, though.