Jets drawing on experience in quest for playoff glory Mature squad uses lessons from the past as it focuses on challenges of the second round
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/05/2021 (554 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Few, if any, would have predicted that less than a week after the Winnipeg Jets began their playoff run, we’d be talking about history being made.
Alas, it took the Jets a grand total of six days to sweep the seemingly high-flying Edmonton Oilers in their opening-round, best-of-seven series — the first series sweep in team history, dating all the way back to the original NHL Jets.
To do it in triple overtime only magnified the moment. The Jets and Oilers battled for 106 minutes and 52 seconds Monday night and Tuesday morning before Kyle Connor was sprung in alone and beat Mike Smith just under his arm to clinch a berth into the final of the Canadian Division.
For those of you old enough to remember, the play was reminiscent of Oilers legend Mark Messier driving up the wing before delivering a dagger. Oh, how times have changed.
It can be difficult to put the moment into perspective, given everything that’s happening around us in this new and unnerving COVID-19 world we’re living in.
From a purely hockey point-of-view, the series might just be the club’s most impressive since relocating from Atlanta. Though there’s certainly an argument to be made for the thrilling matchup with the Nashville Predators in 2018, a battle that lasted seven games with the Jets eventually punching their ticket to the Western Conference final.
“You’ve got to be really careful to start putting into context after the first round of the playoff experience. It’s certainly what I envisioned.”
– Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler
Jets captain Blake Wheeler helped categorize the series after the Game 4 victory, with the veteran of 981 NHL games cautioning the significance of advancing from the first round. Good teams don’t stop to look back when they’re on a roll, they’re too focused on what’s ahead.
“You’ve got to be really careful to start putting into context after the first round of the playoff experience,” Wheeler said. “It’s certainly what I envisioned.”
That was essentially code for the Jets haven’t done or proven anything just yet, even if it was a good — and, to Wheeler and his teammates, an expected — first step. Clearly, the expectations for this group are much higher than disposing of a team that proved to be mostly hollow once you remove Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl from the equation (no disrespect to Darnell Nurse, who played an eye-popping 62 minutes in Game 4 and then returned home to his fiancée Mikayla just in time for the arrival of their son Aiden).
It’s what Wheeler said next that should have fans feeling encouraged about what they’ve seen so far and what might be possible in the coming weeks. It’s impossible to predict how the Jets will do when they face the winner of the series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
But if they continue to prove the doubters wrong and themselves right, it will be with a similar mentality to what drove them against the Oilers. If we learned anything from this series it’s that there’s no real blueprint for the Jets when it comes to winning games — only a collective understanding that if success is in their future, it will be the result of an entire team pulling in the same direction.
Simply put, the Jets are no longer a team filled with fresh-faced rookies. What were once young and exciting prospects are now the core of this club’s leadership group and there’s a growing maturity that needs to continue to be fostered. Built by the players that have committed to the city and have been part of the highs and lows, who were there when the team was a write-off, were celebrated when they evolved into Stanley Cup contenders and are now being questioned as to whether they even belong in that conversation anymore.
“I could go through a locker-room full of guys that have committed to this team and this city. Because we committed to each other, right?” Wheeler said. “And with the idea that we believed that we could win. So, this is just a step in that progression. We built some experience over the last few years. We’ve had some success, some heartbreak at this time of year. And we’re trying to draw off those experiences. More than anything, I think there’s a certain maturity that we’ve accumulated.”
Wheeler added: “I can go through the guys that have been here for a while. They’re not kids anymore. They’re entering the primes of their career and those are the guys that committed long-term and give us a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for. Ask for a chance.”
Perhaps that’s the most frustrating part for fans in all this current glory. They, too, saw a team loaded with talent and therefore set forth high expectations, only to suffer disappointment in recent years. It’s easy for doubt to creep in after you’ve questioned yourself, and it often takes something significant to return to that place.
That’s brings us away from the why and into the how, and the Jets recent series provides plenty of evidence that we might be in for something special. All four games the Jets won against the Oilers were physically difficult and mentally demanding in their own right and required the type of resolve synonymous with every good playoff team.
“I can go through the guys that have been here for a while. They’re not kids anymore. They’re entering the primes of their career and those are the guys that committed long-term and give us a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for. Ask for a chance.”
– Blake Wheeler
Many of the wrinkles that plagued the Jets down the stretch, including losses in nine of their last 12 regular season games, seemed to have been ironed out over the last week. That’s not a suggestion they’re completely fixed, or that warts don’t exist in their game, but at the very least there’s been significant improvements.
It would be criminal not to begin with the play of Connor Hellebuyck, the team’s indisputable X-factor. Hellebuyck’s confidence in himself and his teammates gives everyone on that bench a feeling they could win every night.
So it was fitting that in Game 1, when the Jets were constantly getting hemmed in their own zone, it was Hellebuyck who bailed them out to set the tone for the series. And when his teammates still couldn’t find their scoring touch in Game 2, Hellebuyck answered with a 38-save shutout in a 1-0 overtime victory.
There were other positives through the first two games, including big goals from the likes of Tucker Poolman and Dominic Toninato, as well as the emergence of Logan Stanley, whose stock continues to climb with every heavy hit and effective poke check.
By Game 3 the Jets had recaptured their scoring touch and their belief that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Hence the comeback down 4-1 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third period. That was about as vintage Jets 2.0 as you’ve seen these playoffs, an ode to their stay-in-the-fight mantra that has come to define them the last two seasons. And just further confirmation that Ehlers is a budding star and the club’s true game-changer not named Hellebuyck.
Just as important, Winnipeg’s top leaders, notably Wheeler, began playing an inspiring game. When the Jets captain laid out to block a shot with his family jewels late in the third period of Game 4, his teammates took notice. Ditto for Mathieu Perreault, who, according to Wheeler, set the bar by stepping in front of two shots on the very first shift.
The Jets got goals from Mark Scheifele when they needed it, and looked to Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton for an answer to McDavid and Draisaitl. The defence, considered to be the team’s glaring weak spot, played like they had something to prove. And they still do.
“You spend hours and hours each day trying to prepare your team and trying to get to the next level, and when you win a game you kind of get that instant gratification that you did it well but it doesn’t really mean as much during the regular season,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. “You’re always on to the next one and you don’t get to live it. But a playoff series is a completely different animal. You get engrained in almost all of the movements, so there’s a great satisfaction that comes with a playoff series win.”
And the Jets did it with their backs against the wall every game. It will take more than resiliency to go deep into the playoffs, but it’s become a strong base.
It will be interesting to see what they can build from here.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Wednesday, May 26, 2021 5:58 PM CDT: Byline fixed.