Put the razors away and start growing those gnarly beards: The Winnipeg Jets are going to the playoffs.
Sure, the numbers suggest it will likely still take a couple weeks before they officially punch their ticket, but I’m not exactly going out on a limb here by declaring it fait accompli. A whopping 16-point cushion with just 16 games left on schedule has left the likes of Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa in their dust and spared us any real drama down the stretch.
Who saw that coming for a club many so-called experts predicted would be on the outside looking in when the march to Lord Stanley’s cherished silver chalice begins in mid-May? Not even the most optimistic, rose-coloured outlook — I’m looking at you, Paul Maurice — would have them lapping the closest competition in such a convincing manner
All that’s left to be determined in the final month of the regular-season is whether the 24-13-3 Jets finish first, second, third or fourth in the all-Canadian loop, and which of Toronto, Edmonton or Montreal they meet in the opening round. To which I say, who cares?
Fact is, you’re going to have to beat two of those teams anyways if you want to get out of your division. Save for the ability to make the last line change, home-ice advantage really isn’t a thing this year, with games being played in empty buildings. And there are arguments to be made as to why the Jets do, and don’t, necessarily match-up well against the Maple Leafs, Oilers and Canadiens over a seven-game series.
Toronto is running away with the division, have the league’s top sniper in Auston Matthews and a scorching hot goaltender in Jack Campbell who might never lose a hockey game while also taking four of six games against Winnipeg this year. But they also have a storied recent history of choking in the playoffs.
Edmonton has "super-freak" Connor McDavid — that’s what Blake Wheeler recently called him — and have also won four of the six head-to-head games against the Jets this year. But they also have a lack of depth, questions on the blue-line and in net that you’d think could get exposed over a seven-game series.
Montreal has a future Hall of Fame goaltender in Carey Price (currently injured) who can win a series by himself, plus plenty of speed that has given Winnipeg fits in the past. But they’ve also dropped five of the seven against Winnipeg (three in overtime).
Pick your preference, or your poison, I suppose.
I’m not sure any of those teams should be all that excited about facing the Jets, who boast a Vezina Trophy winner in net, the deepest forward group in the division (and, arguably the entire NHL), and a battle-tested resiliency and poise that should serve them well on a grand stage.
I was genuinely surprised when I crunched some numbers and came up with this one: Since the start of the 2017-18 NHL season, only three teams — Tampa Bay, Boston and Washington — have more wins and points than the Jets. The Lightning are the defending Cup champions, while the Capitals won it all in the spring of 2018. Of all Western Conference teams, Winnipeg (160-91-24) is No. 1, ahead of Vegas, Nashville, Colorado and St. Louis, in that order.
Remind me why we seemingly can’t go a week or two around here without hearing calls from some quarters to fire the coach, axe the general manager, bench this lousy player and trade that bum.
I used that season as a starting point because it’s when the window really opened for this group, a trip to the final four that offered a tantalizing taste of their potential. Sure, the defence has undergone a significant overhaul, but most of the talented core remains.
Which perhaps explains why Maurice, at the risk of putting the cart before the horse, has been speaking all year about getting his team ready for the playoffs. While many might have thought such talk was presumptive, or even preposterous -- especially after a first-round exit to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the spring of 2019, followed by a preliminary round loss to Calgary in the bubble in the fall of 2020 -- the veteran bench boss clearly believes in this group.
And now the Jets can use the last month of a unique season in a unique way.
"It changes your environment, for sure. But it shouldn’t change your mindset. But the environment is you’re not four points out or one point up, which brings a whole different level of tension into your room. I think when you’ve got a bit of a cushion you’re in a far better position to work on your game. The focus is not on that next game quite as heavy, it’s on what do we want to look like in a month, where are the parts in our game we’ve got to make the most improvement," Maurice told me Friday.
That could mean a number of things, including finding spots to get some players some rest or to heal from nagging injuries, tinkering with different line combinations (which Maurice is in the process of doing), working whatever player or players they acquire by Monday’s trade deadline into the rotation, or even getting some of the kids such as Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg and Cole Perfetti a game or two in the coming days.
"You know, it would be a mistake to say that the environment we’re in right now with a 16-point cushion on the playoffs is the exact same if we were up one or down one. It’s just not," said Maurice. "But you work hard to create that cushion, so the benefits should be you don’t have to chase a game as hard that maybe you’re down a goal, you don’t have to run back-to-back nights with your A guy, you could make slightly longer-term decisions. But the focus will always be on the quality of your game."
This is not an organization that will simply be content with making the playoffs, nor should it be. They are spending to near the salary cap and in "win-now" mode. Another early playoff exit would be a bitter pill to swallow.
"I think throughout the whole regular season, you’re trying to build for the playoffs," said veteran forward Paul Stastny, who was a big part of that magical 2018 run. He cautioned against getting too comfortable with their current lot in life.
"You can’t just kind of flip a switch for the playoffs. Whatever game you have in the regular season, you have to keep with that consistency and just play that throughout the playoffs. Sometimes, (people) think you play one way and in the playoffs, you just flip a switch but it’s not like that at all."
Perhaps it helps that Winnipeg will get a non-stop reminder of what’s still to come as they play Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal nine times in their remaining 16 games. In that sense, it will be tough to take the foot off the pedal too much.
And while the results of those games won’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, it would serve the Jets well to keep one eye on the prize and set themselves up for what they truly believe can be a long and successful run.
The ultimate success, or failure, of this year will no longer be judged by where they are in a month from now. Rather, it will be determined by how long those playoff beards get and how close they come to the 16 wins needed to raise a trophy in early July.
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.