Five things to watch: New era dawns in Winnipeg

The Hockey News
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By Gareth Bush, Josh Elliott and Brian O’Neill

We get you prepared for the four-game night ahead on the NHL schedule with our five storylines to watch, from a new start for the Jets to Mike Smith’s (and Phoenix’s) struggles and beyond.

A New Voice
The Winnipeg Jets didn’t raise many eyebrows Sunday when they announced the firing of coach Claude Noel. The club is 19-23-5 and 10 points back of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, while many of its star players have become the subject of recent trade talk. The Jets have found themselves in no man’s land, the perfect medium between a playoff spot and a quality seed in this year’s NHL draft lottery. Paul Maurice has been hired to fill in for Noel until the end of the season. As is the norm in the NHL, the players took the blame for the coach’s firing, with center Olli Jokinen describing the team as being “embarrassed.” Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien emerged as the optimist of the group, emphasizing that having a new face behind the bench could be a good change for the Jets. We’ll find out if Byfuglien’s right as Maurice will make his Jets debut tonight with the Phoenix Coyotes in town.

Close Doesn’t Cut It
He may be a future Canadian Olympian, but these days, Mike Smith is looking pretty mortal. After a strong start to the season that saw Smith’s Coyotes third in the Pacific Division by mid-November, he has won just three games in his past 18 appearances. But it’s tough to lay all the blame at his feet, as his 3-10-5 record over that span shows he’s playing well enough to keep games close and earn an extra point. Apart from scoring more – something he’s already done once this year – Smith is doing everything he can. Still, Phoenix has fallen to ninth in the Western Conference and is four points back of the last wild card slot. In the ultra-competitive West, overtime and shootout losses won’t be enough to get this team to the playoffs.

Many Happy Returns
It’s been a tough couple of months for Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Alex Edler. Luongo went down with an injury against the Jets Dec. 22. Then, shortly after returning, he suffered another injury against the Kings Jan. 4. Edler, meanwhile, has been rehabbing a knee injury since Dec. 3. But things are looking up for both players and if they’re not in the lineup tonight against the Kings, they’re at least expected to play before the week is out. Luongo and Edler both took part in the Canucks’ practice Sunday and are with the team for a three-game road trip that starts tonight in L.A. and includes stops in Anaheim and Phoenix. Luongo and Edler will look to get on a roll with the Canucks as they prepare to represent Canada and Sweden, respectively, at next month’s Olympics.

Rolling Lightning
No Steven Stamkos, no problem. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been on a roll going through a 7-1-0 run on the road without their star center who is still out with a broken tibia. Over that time, the Lightning have beaten the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames and the Philadelphia Flyers, where the Lightning snapped a 10-game home winning streak for Philly. Valtteri Filppula has been on fire with 16 points in his past 13 games, showing why he was chosen to represent Finland in Sochi. The Lightning are in tough tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been on a nice little roll themselves, going 7-3-0 in their past 10 games.

Khudobin Kudos
Anton Khudobin is human, after all. The Carolina Hurricane goaltender had a pedestrian outing, making 21 saves in a 3-0 loss to the Blue Jackets last Friday, his first loss of the season. With Cam Ward on the IR with a lower body injury, Khudobin has made the most out of his current opportunity, putting up a 1.99 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage, while going 6-1-0. Khudobin will likely get the start tonight and couldn’t ask for a better opponent to get a bounce back win against than the Calgary Flames. The lowly Flames have been awful lately, dropping eight of their past 10 and five of their past six road games.