Opinion

Death, taxes and the Winnipeg Jets having their Stanley Cup dreams crushed by the mighty Edmonton Oilers.

Death, taxes and the Winnipeg Jets having their Stanley Cup dreams crushed by the mighty Edmonton Oilers.

Hockey fans around these parts got used to singing the same sad song every spring, with six head-to-head meetings between 1983 and 1990 that ended in the same frustrating fashion. The Oilers advanced every time, winning 22 of 26 games and outscoring the Jets 114-73 in the process.

Fun fact: For all five Edmonton championships won during that decade of dominance, they wiped out Winnipeg along the way.

But that was then, and this is now. And the former Smythe Division rivals are facing-off on the biggest hockey stage for the first time in 31 years, starting Wednesday in Edmonton as their best-of-seven first round series gets underway.

Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Hawerchuk, Steen and Ellett have been long-ago been replaced by the likes of McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, Scheifele, Wheeler and Morrissey. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the view from many pundits and oddsmakers that this series is likely to be swift, and one-sided.

Connor McDavid has been a one-man wrecking machine against the Jets this season. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Connor McDavid has been a one-man wrecking machine against the Jets this season. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

It would seem the Jets aren't being given a snowball's chance in a sweltering prairie summer, due largely to the fact they won just two of nine meetings during the regular-season against the Oilers — including the last six times in regulation in which they were outscored 21-7.

There is plenty of pressure on both sides: For Winnipeg, to win a playoff series for the first time since disposing of Minnesota and Nashville during that 2018 run to the Western Conference final. The Jets have dropped three straight rounds since: to Vegas in 2018, St. Louis in 2019 and Calgary in 2020. There's also the troubling matter of a late-season slide in which they won just three of their last dozen games.

For Edmonton, the pressure is not to waste yet another season of having the best player on the planet in their fold. Incredibly, this is just the second time they've officially made the playoffs since dropping the Cup final to Carolina way back in 2006. The Oilers lost in the second-round to Anaheim in 2017, then got knocked out of the qualifying round last year by the underdog Chicago Blackhawks.

Is history about to repeat itself, or can the Jets right some wrongs of the past and end the Oilers season for the first time in their NHL history?

Key storylines and questions

1. Can the Jets at least limit the damage McDavid does? Expecting them to completely shut down the 105-point man is silly. But if Winnipeg has any hope of winning, they'll have to at least keep McDavid somewhat in check. He had at least two points against them in all nine games this year, a ridiculous 22 in total. Whether it's Mark Scheifele's line or Adam Lowry's line getting the bulk of the work, someone needs to cover No. 97 like a blanket or else he could end up beating them by himself as he often did during the season.

The return of Nikolaj Ehlers remains up in the air. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

CP

The return of Nikolaj Ehlers remains up in the air. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

2. Is there a doctor in the house? Andrew Copp is likely good to go for Game 1, but Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois are major question marks. If the Jets are without both for any duration, the odds become even steeper as their forward depth will be severely tested. The Oilers, meanwhile, would seem to have all their regulars save for defenceman Kris Russell available for the series. In a series such as this, health is likely to play a pivotal role.

3. The goalie duel: Mike Smith had a terrific year, and you wonder if the bubble might burst at some point for the 39-year-old. Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and the Jets likely need him to steal a game or two (or even three or four) along the way. Playoff series are often decided by the masked men, and this may be no different with two teams that can score in buckets.

4. Potent power plays: Edmonton had the top regular-season unit in the NHL, while Winnipeg's was seventh-best. In other words, both teams would be wise to stay out of the box as much as possible at the risk of paying a steep price when lines do get crossed.

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Tale of the tape

Goals for per game: Winnipeg 3.04 (12th), Edmonton 3.27 (7th)

Goals against per game: Winnipeg 2.71 (10th), Edmonton 2.75 (T-11th)

Power play: Winnipeg 23.0% (7th), Edmonton 27.6% (1st)

Penalty kill: Winnipeg 80.5% (13th), Edmonton 82.5% (9th)

Shots for per game: Winnipeg 29.7 (T-16th), Edmonton 29.9 (15th)

Shots against per game: Winnipeg 30.6 (20th), Edmonton 30.7 (21st)

Faceoffs: Winnipeg 50.5% (13th), Edmonton 50.4% (14th)

Corsi for percentage (5-on-5): Winnipeg 48.21% (21st), Edmonton 48.64% (18th)

Expected goals percentage (5-on-5): Winnipeg 46.48% (23rd), Edmonton 49.66% (16th)

High-danger chances percentage (5-on-5): Winnipeg 44.63% (29th), Edmonton 49.78 (16th)

5. Familiarity breeds contempt: An all-divisional schedule this season seems to have ratcheted the intensity up right out of the chute in the playoffs so far, and this series will likely be no exception. Playing on the edge, but not over the edge, is critical. The Jets got bullied by the Flames in the bubble last year, and can't allow that to happen again. Taking the body, especially on the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl, to limit their time and space is sound strategy.

6. Familiarity should also breed increased emphasis on coaching strategy: The Jets and Oilers have seen so much of each other already that there shouldn't be a whole lot of surprises. That puts additional pressure on the coaching staffs to make adjustments, and counter-adjustments, along the way. Can the Jets turn those six straight losses into something positive, for example? In that sense, the battle behind the benches between Paul Maurice and Dave Tippett is worth keeping an eye on.

7. Home ice no advantage? Unlike all of U.S.-based series there will be no raucous hometown crowds cheering teams on north of the border. Momentum swings that can be massive in the playoffs likely won't be quite the same with piped-in noise. That really adds an element of uncertainty, which might explain why both Winnipeg and Edmonton were actually better on the road this year.

Looking for an unsung hero

Sure, the biggest stars need to shine bright. But teams that go a long way typically have some of their lesser-heralded players step up on the big stage. Here's a few who could fit that role:

1. Andrew Copp — He would seem to be built for the playoffs, and the versatile forward is coming off his best offensive season and eager to make an impact.

2. Jesse Puljujarvi — The fourth-overall pick of the 2016 draft is playing the best hockey of his career and has all the physical tools needed to be something special.

Pierre-Luc Dubois hasn't practised since being injured on Friday in the last game of the season. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Pierre-Luc Dubois hasn't practised since being injured on Friday in the last game of the season. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

3. Pierre-Luc Dubois — We've been waiting for the third-overall pick of the 2016 draft to really emerge in Winnipeg, and the clean slate of the post-season is the perfect opportunity for the 22-year-old to put a frustrating regular-season in the rear-view mirror. The question is, will he even be in the lineup given the injury suffered last Friday in the final regular-season (a shot to the head) which has kept him out of practice all week.

4. Kailer Yamamoto — Speed kills, and the young winger has it in spades. He will be counted on to provide some much-needed secondary scoring for his top-heavy club.

5. Dylan DeMelo — He looks to be starting the playoffs on a shutdown pair with Josh Morrissey, and Winnipeg's chances improve mightily if he can bring their collective games up a notch or two.

6. Adam Larsson — The big, physical blue-liner quietly had a terrific season and is a big reason for Edmonton's improved defensive game.

The season series

1. Jan. 24: Edmonton 4 at Winnipeg 3 — A roller-coaster ride of a game. The Jets took a 1-0 lead in the first, fell behind 2-1 after two, grabbed a 3-2 lead in the final frame only to surrender the tying goal with 185 seconds left and the winning goal, to Draisaitl, with less than a second left in regulation.

2. Jan. 26: Edmonton 4 at Winnipeg 6 — The Jets trailed 3-2 heading into the third, but rallied with a big final 20 minutes to take this one. Nikolaj Ehlers had a goal and three assists to lead the way.

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Lineups

This is based on line rushes and defence pairings at Tuesday's practices in Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Jets 

Forwards

Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler

Copp-Stastny-Vesalainen

Perreault-Lowry-Appleton

Harkins-Thompson-Lewis

Injured: Ehlers, Dubois

Extras:Toninato, Gustafsson, Dano

Defence

Morrissey-DeMelo

Forbort-Pionk

Stanley-Poolman

Injured: Beaulieu

Extras: Benn, Heinola, Niku, Samberg

Oilers 

Forwards

Kahun-McDavid-Puljujarvi

Nugent-Hopkins-Draisaitl-Yamamoto

Archibald-Khaira-Chiasson

Neal-McLeod-Kassian

Extras: Turris, Ennis, Haas, Nygard, Shore, Russell

Defence

Nurse-Barrie

Kulikov-Larsson

Koekkoek-Bear

Injured: Russell

Extras: Jones, Lagesson, Bouchard, Broberg

3. Feb. 15: Winnipeg 6 at Edmonton 5 — The high-scoring games continued, with the Jets blowing leads of 4-1 and 5-3 only to get a third-period goal by Blake Wheeler which proved to be the winner as they kicked off a western road swing.

4. Feb. 17: Winnipeg 2 at Edmonton 3 — McDavid recorded his 500th career point, assisting on Draisaitl's second period power-play goal that proved to be the difference, in a tighter-checking affair.

5. March 18: Winnipeg 1 at Edmonton 2 — The Jets were coming off a home win against Montreal the previous night and couldn't get much offence going against the Oilers, which used a pair of goals from McDavid to take it.

6. March 20: Winnipeg 2 at Edmonton 4 — The Jets grabbed a quick 2-0 lead but surrendered four straight, including three in the third period. For the third time this season, Draisaitl scored the game-winner against them.

7. Apr. 17: Edmonton 3 at Winnipeg 0 — The Jets were coming off a terrific five-game eastern road trip in which they went 4-1-0 and seemed to be out of gas for this one. Smith stopped all 26 shots he faced and the Oilers struck twice on their power play.

8. Apr. 26 - Edmonton 6 at Winnipeg 1 — Perhaps the ugliest loss of Winnipeg's season, they were outclassed in every way as McDavid ran wild with three goals and an assist, seemingly wide-open every time he was on the ice.

9. Apr. 28 - Edmonton 3 at Winnipeg 1 — A better defensive effort but a similar result as the Jets fell for a fifth straight game (and sixth consecutive to the Oilers) to conclude their regular-season series.

What Vegas is saying

The latest odds as of Tuesday are favouring the Oilers:

Overall:

Oilers -175 (4/7)

Jets +155 (31/20)

Odds to win the Stanley Cup:

Oilers 18/1

Jets 50/1

Connor Hellebuyck is going to have to be stellar in net to deal with the Oilers' firepower. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

CP

Connor Hellebuyck is going to have to be stellar in net to deal with the Oilers' firepower. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Game schedule

Wednesday May 19 — Jets at Oilers, 8 p.m. CT (TV: CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS, Radio: CJOB 680)

Friday May 21 — Jets at Oilers, 8 p.m. CT (TV: CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS, Radio: CJOB 680)

Sunday May 23 — Oilers at Jets, 6:30 p.m. CT (TV: CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS, Radio: CJOB 680)

Monday May 24 — Oilers at Jets, 8:45 p.m. CT (TV: CBC, Sportsnet, TVAS, Radio: CJOB 680)

Wednesday May 26 — Jets at Oilers, if necessary

Friday May 28 — Oilers at Jets, if necessary

Sunday May 30 — Jets at Oilers, if necessary

Prediction: Oilers in five. Sorry, Jets fans. Time really doesn't heal all wounds as the playoff beatings continue.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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