The sequel of this Western Conference story might have a score written by Neil Young rather than Leonard Bernstein, even though "Harvest Moon" does not fit the lunar cycle for Thursday, January 23. The folk rocker is almost sure to be there when the resurgent Winnipeg Jets of his childhood home visit the San Jose Sharks of his new home.
The record of each team as well as the pictured comparisons of available personnel and coaching might suggest a mismatch. Expect something more like the first clash this season—an overtime home win that belonged to Winnipeg last November, in the midst of San Jose's five-game losing streak.
Only two teams in the Western Conference sit lower in the standings than the Jets, but they are not even four games out of the last berth to the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Meanwhile, the Sharks are a whopping 10 games better but still trail the Anaheim Ducks by nine points in the Pacific Division standings with two games in hand.
The first road win in Anaheim during the 2013-14 NHL season was Winnipeg's fifth in a row since coach Paul Maurice took over. Next up is the team with the best home record since the latest lockout ended 12 months ago.
San Jose is 17-2-3 at home this season, won all six 2013 Stanley Cup playoff games and no team earned more home points (39) in the lockout-condensed 2012-13 NHL season. After alternating wins and losses as 2013 ended, this team now has four wins in a row and is 12-1-1 in its last 14 home games.
The Sharks are not going to be able to rest on that home success because they are running out of time to catch the Ducks. However, the Jets are not likely to be overlooked as well as they have been playing.
With four forwards on injured reserve and Martin Havlat predictably out again, the San Jose Sharks have been relying on undeveloped or career minor league players for their fourth line. Even with the four remaining elite forwards producing well, the opposition can put a top pair on one scoring line and a checking line on the other.
The Winnipeg Jets are now healthy at the position and thus deep, with former Shark Devin Setoguchi only their seventh-best scoring option. They do not have anyone playing as well as Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski are right now, but their checking line forwards at least belong in the NHL.
The edge here is debatable, but leans toward the Jets.
The Winnipeg Jets actually have a deep blue line, with three solid two-way players and more than the two third-pair defenders they can dress led by difference-maker Dustin Byfuglien. However, the San Jose Sharks are even deeper, with four two-way players and two third-pair options as well as impact offensive defenseman Dan Boyle.
The real difference comes in the defensive end. Boyle is not even San Jose's best player, with Marc-Edouard Vlasic leading a shut-down pair with partner Justin Braun. They are leading the charge for one of the best shot-blocking teams in the NHL.
Ondrej Pavelec and Antti Niemi have both seemed to regain the form that saw both finish the condensed 2012-13 NHL season in the top-three in saves. Both are workhorses, but how do they compare in the important save percentage (save pct) and goals-against average (GAA)?
This season, Niemi has a 2.38 GAA and .913 save pct. That is only slightly below his career numbers (2.34, .917), was a Vezina finalist for the 2012-13 San Jose Sharks and won a Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Pavelec just does not compare. This season, he has questionable stats: 2.99 GAA and .901 save pct. Unfortunately for him, those are only slightly below his career averages of 2.96 and .906, respectively.
The statistics do not factor in the strength of the teams Niemi has played on compared to Pavelec, but they are lopsided enough to make San Jose's edge clear.
The San Jose Sharks have given Todd McLellan the best coaching staff in the world. He was on the previous staff with that title when taken from the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. With two Western Conference finals appearances before he had that staff, he has shown he can coach.
Paul Maurice has also shown that with what appears to be an immediate turnaround for the Winnipeg Jets when he took over. His approach might eventually wear on the team, but not in the 2013-14 NHL season. Still, neither he nor his staff are as accomplished as San Jose's.