May 23, 2018

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Opinion

Jets halfway to ultimate goal and looking good as Cup contenders

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)</p><p>Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny, right, celebrates after teammate Tyler Myers, not shown, scored a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, left, of Finland, during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Also defending for the Predators is Roman Josi (59), of Switzerland. </p>

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny, right, celebrates after teammate Tyler Myers, not shown, scored a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, left, of Finland, during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Also defending for the Predators is Roman Josi (59), of Switzerland.

It started back in September with what can only be described as a uniquely Winnipeg mix of hope and desperation.

Asked prior to training camp if this was the season a young and talented Winnipeg Jets team would finally live up to its potential, captain Blake Wheeler gave an answer that sounded more like a plea than a declaration.

“It’s got to be this year,” said Wheeler. “It just has to be.”

By December, as the wins mounted, the desperation was gone and the hope this might be the season the Jets finally get back to the playoffs became the reality that they probably would.

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It started back in September with what can only be described as a uniquely Winnipeg mix of hope and desperation.

Asked prior to training camp if this was the season a young and talented Winnipeg Jets team would finally live up to its potential, captain Blake Wheeler gave an answer that sounded more like a plea than a declaration.

"It’s got to be this year," said Wheeler. "It just has to be."

By December, as the wins mounted, the desperation was gone and the hope this might be the season the Jets finally get back to the playoffs became the reality that they probably would.

By April, having clinched a playoff spot, the question ceased to be whether these Jets could make the playoffs but rather how far could they go.

Well, we got an answer Thursday night in Nashville — farther.

Take a bow Winnipeg — for the first time in, well, forever, this city is the home of a team with a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup.

Believe it. If you’ve got to beat the best to be the best, well, that’s exactly what the Jets must be after dispatching the Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series.

With the win, the Jets eliminated the best team in the NHL during the regular season and advanced to the Western Conference final, where they will now face the Cinderella story that is the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 Saturday in Winnipeg.

This is all new ground, both for Winnipeg and the Jets.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' captain Blake Wheeler declared back in September that this just had to be the Jets' year to make some noise in the playoffs.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' captain Blake Wheeler declared back in September that this just had to be the Jets' year to make some noise in the playoffs.

No Jets team — not 1.0 or 2.0 — had won a Game 7 until Thursday night. No Jets team — not this team or the last — had advanced to the third round of the playoffs.

And, needless to say, no Jets team, in even our wildest collective imagination, has ever had us believing like this one does that a Stanley Cup parade down Portage Avenue is actually a thing that could happen.

Until this moment, a Stanley Cup has been the kind of big prize that always seemed to be reserved for other cities. Chicago wins Stanley Cups, not the Chicago of the North.

Yet here we are, farther than we’ve ever been before and with nothing but an expansion team — yeah, one hell of an expansion team, but still — standing between the local professional hockey team and a little dance called the Stanley Cup final.

Hands up if you had a Vegas-Winnipeg Western Conference final at the start of the regular season — or even, for that matter, at the end of the regular season?

No one saw any of this coming and that would include, one would presume, a Nashville team that must surely have thought they had the Jets right where they wanted them on Thursday night, which is to say at Bridgestone Arena for a seventh and deciding game.

It was exactly the kind of moment you might have reasonably expected the third-youngest team in the NHL this season to finally fold and go away, content with a job well done and the knowledge that the future for this Jets team requires sunglasses.

There’d have been no shame in bowing out Thursday night, the battle hard-fought.

Yet on this night, it was the Jets who looked like the hungry vets and Nashville — and netminder Pekka Rinne in particular — who looked like this was all new and scary to them.

In a season in which goaltending has been the most important driver of Winnipeg’s success, it was the same script again Thursday night — only this time it wasn’t Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck who was the author.

No, on this night, the netminder that contributed most to the Jets' success was wearing a Predators jersey.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods</p><p>Vegas Golden Knights' Nate Schmidt and Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine collide during a regular season game in February. The Jets will now face the Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Vegas Golden Knights' Nate Schmidt and Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine collide during a regular season game in February. The Jets will now face the Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals.

Save some room on your Christmas lists for Rinne, who gifted the Jets two ridiculously soft goals before the game was 11 minutes old and was quickly given the hook for an eye-bulging third time in the series.

If you’re updating your Christmas list, save a line on it, too, for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, whose work was front and centre in a Game 7 win.

Paul Stastny, acquired by Chevy in a trade with the St. Louis Blues at the deadline in February, had two goals and an assist in the biggest game in Jets history. Mark Scheifele, Chevy’s first ever draft pick, had two goals. Tyler Myers, acquired in that trade that sent Evander Kane to Buffalo, had the first goal of the game. And Hellebuyck, a fifth-round sleeper pick by Cheveldayoff in 2012, was as solid for 60 minutes as Rinne was shaky for the first 10.

Put it all together and Chevy’s fingerprints — at the draft table and the trade table — were all over this victory.

Now, the lone weakness on this Jets team coming into the series against Nashville was a lack of big-game playoff experience. Truth be told, it peeked through at times — and never more so than in Game 6 when, with a chance to clinch on home ice, the Jets let Nashville off the hook.

A Jets team that was once dominant at home, lost for the second time in a row at Bell MTS Place. And a power play that was so strong for much of the regular season went cold when it mattered most.

Giving an elite team like Nashville a second life like the Jets did in Game 6 is usually a recipe for disaster. But like the kids that they mostly are, the Jets learned from the experience and were ruthlessly opportunistic Thursday night in capitalizing on every Predators mistake and making Nashville pay dearly.

The same Jets team that seemed to lack finish in Winnipeg on Monday night found all kinds of the stuff on Thursday and it’s now the Predators who are finished and the Jets who seem like they might just be getting started.

It takes 16 victories to win a Stanley Cup. The Jets now have eight, which would seem on the surface to suggest they’re still just halfway there.

But with Nashville now behind them and all kinds of big-game playoff experience now under their belts, the Jets have become the team to beat.

Now, I don't know if, as Wheeler contended, it had to be this year. All I know is that with a monumental victory Thursday night, it's starting to really look like it might be this year.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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Updated on Thursday, May 10, 2018 at 11:44 PM CDT: Adds video

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