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This article was published 6/4/2018 (850 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The National Hockey League schedule requires them to finish out their regular-season schedule Saturday with what has been rendered a mostly meaningless home date with the Chicago Blackhawks.
But you can forgive Winnipeg Jets players, coaches and fans for looking ahead and having Minnesota on their mind. The first-ever Jets and Wild playoff matchup will begin next week and excitement is building for what a prolonged duel between the Central Division rivals will bring.
"This city is dying for playoff hockey," Jets centre Mark Scheifele said following Friday's practice.
Just a handful of current Jets were part of the 2014-15 squad that snuck into the playoffs by capturing a wild-card spot, only to be swept in four games by the Anaheim Ducks.
"It was exciting. They were fun games to play in Winnipeg. Obviously you wish there were more games. Hopefully we can do that this time around," said Scheifele, who was just in his second full season at the time.
While young stars such as Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck will be getting their first taste of NHL playoffs, this has an entirely familiar feeling for one veteran player. Paul Stastny will be meeting Minnesota in the first round for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
His Colorado Avalanche were knocked out by Minnesota in seven games in 2014, and his St. Louis Blues were sent packing by the Wild in six games in 2015. St. Louis got some revenge last year when they beat Minnesota in five games. Now a member of the Jets following a blockbuster trade-deadline deal, Stastny will likely be one of the loudest voices in the locker room sharing his experiences.
"Some people get way too amped up, or way too down and get away from their game sometimes. Yeah it's more physical, more intense hockey, but you've got to stick to what makes you successful and stick to trying to be loose and having fun out there and enjoy the moment," said Stastny. "For me, it's more about talking to guys individually. The best players aren't the ones who elevate their game. I think it's the ones that stay consistent."
Winnipeg and Minnesota had the two best home records in the league this season, and Stastny said the huge, hockey-crazed fan bases in both markets will only add to the atmosphere.
"Playoffs in hockey is a different animal," he said. "Home games are great. I think road games are almost even more fun as a player. You're playing in a hostile environment. It's just you and the team against everyone else. You want to do everything you can to quiet that crowd down. And when you do and get a win on the road, there's nothing better than that."
Defenceman Tyler Myers said there will be plenty of speed to burn between the Jets and Wild, who should finally solidify the true rivalry that many have been pining for since NHL hockey returned here in 2011.
"It definitely adds to a rivalry for sure. You develop a bit of a hatred for the other team, if you want to call it that," said Myers. "Both arenas are going to be extremely loud, extremely energetic. Whether it's the home team or the away team, it's going to be a pretty exciting atmosphere playing. Certainly we're excited to have the fans in our barn behind us when we're here. We'll just try to carry the same prep we've had in the year and try to take it one game at a time."
Stastny said players and fans will quickly learn to embrace the "hate."
"Once you get a couple of games under your belt, you really grow to hate your opponent. That’s the beauty of playoffs. Once you play a team once, then you always have that history with them and it never goes away," he said.
Jets goaltender Hellebuyck actually has a good friendship with Minnesota starting goalie Devan Dubnyk, as the pair trained together last summer in British Columbia. He's looking forward to what the series will bring.
"He's a great goalie and it's going to be a great series. It's going to be hard-fought, but we'll put our friendship aside for it," said Hellebuyck. "I'm just really excited to see our fans and the whiteout and see the real atmosphere in Winnipeg."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice wasn't ready to discuss much about Minnesota on Friday, preferring to keep the focus on regular-season game No. 82 against the Blackhawks. Hellebuyck will get the start in net, while defenceman Tucker Poolman looks to come in to replace Jacob Trouba, who "tweaked" a previous ankle injury during practice Friday. Maurice insisted there's no concern and Trouba will be ready for the playoffs. Forward Brandon Tanev is also expected to come back into the lineup, but who comes out hasn't been announced.
As for the playoffs, Maurice said he isn't concerned about his team's collective lack of experience.
"In so far as not having played a game, the closest thing you can do is watch them, and everybody would be aware of it. They're aware of the change in intensity of those games. And then the only other way to get it is to live it. When you're doing something new, the first experience is where you can gain the most. The biggest part of that curve is the first game, getting a feel for it," said Maurice. "We've got a whole lot of guys that need to go through it, and we want them to go through it. We're real excited they're going to get that chance."
Maurice said one of the most important lessons to learn is how to handle the inevitable swings in momentum.
"I don't remember anybody going 16-0, so you're going to have deal with some adversity in the playoffs. And that's where the guys that have experience get to step up," said Maurice. "My feeling is momentum changes every time the puck drops. There's a lot of Stanley Cup champions that have gone down 2-0 in their first series. So every time the puck drops, every game is a chance to either reclaim momentum or that good feeling that you've lost or grab hold of it and run with it."
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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