It’s not just that the Winnipeg Jets won Friday night, although that’s plenty special all by itself in a town where it had been 31 years since the last time the local NHL team had won a playoff series.

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This article was published 20/4/2018 (1275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It’s not just that the Winnipeg Jets won Friday night, although that’s plenty special all by itself in a town where it had been 31 years since the last time the local NHL team had won a playoff series.

It was more how they won, though, that spoke the loudest volumes about the truly remarkable thing this Jets team has become since the last time they made the playoffs.

Missing three of their top-six defencemen and two top-nine forwards to injury or suspension Friday night — including a 29-goal scorer in Nikolaj Ehlers, who was a game-time scratch — the Jets laid waste at Bell MTS Place to a desperate Minnesota Wild team that was fighting for their playoff lives in Game 5 of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In the end, the series clincher wasn’t close — the Jets led 4-0 halfway through the first period and added another in the third period to make the final score 5-0, as Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck recorded his second straight shutout.

Let history record that the first playoff series victory for the Winnipeg Jets since they eliminated the Calgary Flames in the Smythe Division semifinal in 1987 went into the books as four games to one.

With the exception of the night off the Jets inexplicably took in a Game 3 loss in St. Paul, this series was like the final game, which is to say not really even close.

Yeah, Minnesota was short-handed in this series too, missing both their superstars in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter by series end. But most NHL teams are short-handed this time of year — and the ones who aren’t soon will be. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a meat grinder.

But that’s the thing — the Jets had a depth and a resilience to them in this series that Minnesota didn’t. And Winnipeg is headed to the second round because of it.

And for that you can thank a courageous decision the Jets' front office made the last time this team made the playoffs back in 2015, resisting the temptation at the time to simply tweak a roster that had finally made the playoffs in favour of a painful top-down overhaul that ultimately produced the team that eliminated the Wild Friday night.

The easy thing in 2015 would have been to have stay the course with a team that had finally made the playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg in 2011.

Jets fans had grown tired of losing and having finally tasted some winning that 2014-15 season, the pressure was on the Jets' braintrust to make a few roster additions and subtractions that summer and deliver more of the same the next season.

Instead, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff tore the whole thing down after getting swept 4-0 by Anaheim and sent the Jets back into the wilderness for two more seasons of losing and seasoning.

That made Chevy a very unpopular man in this town. Jets fans, it turned out, actually liked Jim Slater. We laughed with Adam Pardy as often as we laughed at him. Matt Halischuk fit this town — blue collar, with more heart than talent.

But more than anything, Chevy was unpopular in these parts because after all those years of waiting — first to get our NHL team back and then again to get an NHL team worth watching — the last thing Winnipeg fans wanted to hear in the spring of 2015 was that they were going to have to wait some more.

But wait we did — for two more long, playoffs-less seasons. We did not enjoy it.

If front-office decisions were made by popular vote, Chevy would have been fired at this time last year, if not sooner. And the axe would have fallen on head coach Paul Maurice, who at one point last year was the odds-on favourite in Vegas to be the next NHL coach to be fired.

But it turns out Chevy et al were right all along: all this Jets team needed to win in the playoffs was a roster completely unlike the one that lost to Anaheim — and a couple more seasons to put it together.

Consider: of the 22 players who played at least one game for the Jets in that Anaheim series, just 11 were still with the organization Friday night when the Jets and Wild lined up to shake hands at night’s end.

Slater, Pardy, Halischuk? All gone. So are Ondrej Pavelec, Drew Stafford, Jiri Tlusty, Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak, Mark Stuart, Chris Thorburn and the former captain, Andrew Ladd.

What was a big and slow — ‘heavy’ in the current NHL parlance — team in 2015 is now a lightning-quick and highly skilled outfit that is perfectly suited to the way the NHL game is played today.

Remember that bunch of kids that played at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey under the banner of Team North America and ended up stealing the show? Remember how it seemed at the time like you were glimpsing the future of the sport?

Well, it turns out you were — and the future of hockey looks a whole lot like a Jets team that was the third youngest in the NHL this season and had 11 players under the age of 25 on the ice Friday night.

Were the Jets prescient, spotting the movement to youth and speed almost before anyone else and going all-in after the Anaheim series? Or were they just lucky, going younger and faster out of necessity in a ‘draft and develop’ system in which guys like Slater and Stempniak were always going to be temporary solutions?

The answer is probably a bit of both — prescient and lucky — which just happens to be the same explanation for how it came to be that the Jets drafted a Vezina-trophy candidate in Hellebuyck in the fifth round, 130th overall, in 2012.

Sometimes you’ve got to be good and sometimes you’ve got to be lucky. In a city with as tortured a sports history as ours, we haven’t been much of either for a very long time.

But we are now. And on a Friday night in a week in which spring finally sprang in this winter hinterland, we’ve got hope and one hell of a hockey team heading into the second round.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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