Call it luck or was it destined? Whatever you call it, the Winnipeg Jets managed to clinch their place in this season’s playoffs with the Second Wildcard slot in the Western Conference
With Game 1 of their First Round series against the Vegas Golden Knights approaching, will they stream past the opposition or get blasted into the offseason?
If they want to exceed their own expectations and those of the surprised audience, what do they need to do to get past the Knights?
Well, before we address that, how did they reach this stage of the competition?
The hard way
The Jets are heading back to the Playoffs after missing out in last season, when they came sixth in the Central Division and eight points behind the Nashville Predators (97 and 89 respectively).
A lot has changed in this season. They managed to clinch the Second Wildcard spot after beating the Minnesota Wild 3 – 1 and finishing on 95 points.
Despite an initial sputter against the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, they would go on to record an eight-game win-streak in the October and a shorter six-game streak in November.
It was certainly a surprise to see the Jets perform so well from the get-go, particularly given their poor performance during the previous season. That can be linked to their new head coach Rick Bowness.
Bowness started his tenure with the Jets by creating accountability inside the team and taking the captaincy away from Blake Wheeler.
He was no nonsense and blunt, ready to call players out for not pulling their weight. While a big culture change can be difficult to adjust to, the players bought into it and after a shaky start, they started to excel… but sometimes players need to be reminded.
So impressive was the change that the Jets were even recorded as first in the Western Conference on January 22nd, with a score record of 29 – 14 – 1.
That achievement was more meaningful given that November through December, the team was plagued by injuries. Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler among seven other regulars, were benched.
Players ‘manned-up’ and there were no clear signs of passengers taking a seat for the ride. Notable of the performances were Pierre-Luc Dubois, Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey, who all excelled.
Just in the nick of time
This is where things get interesting…
Jets were on course to be the first team in the history of the NHL to be a conference leader BUT also miss the Playoffs. That three-month nosedive from January onwards did not help.
When the team started to get back up to strength, they got cocky and started drowning out Bowness. The structure of play started to collapse resulting in big losses.
The latter half of January recorded a 3 – 5 – 0, 3 – 5 – 1 in February and 7 – 7 – 1 in March.
Major line changes came just before March 31st, bringing more flexibility and scoring along all three lines. There was also the inclusion of Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov during the trades, helping Jets break out of the nosedive.
Thankfully, Jets managed to beat the Wild, Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks, and booking their place in the Playoffs. That also upset the Calgary Flames who were clinging on to the hope of clinching.
Connor Hellebuyck’s starring role
It wasn’t just Bowness’ expertise in the nick of time, Jets’ goalie Connor Hellebuyck has also had a big part to play in the race to the Playoffs.
Hellebuyck has played most of the season with 64 games, 37 – 26 – 2, 4 shutouts, .0920 save percentage and 2.49 GAA.
He also recorded a 14.2 Goalie Points Share, a personal best in his eight years with the Jets and a GSAA of 30.7%.
The stopper had a very impressive opening to the season clearly, but he started to tire as the second half hit. That didn’t stop him pulling out stellar save stats like the 50 in the 4 – 1 New York Rangers game or the 33 saves in the recent Wild game.
Jets are going to be the underdogs in Tuesday’s matchup. The Golden Knights finished the Regular Season as the Western Conference leaders.
However, there are a few things that the Jets need to do if they’re to deliver a favourable result against their First-Round opponents.
Keep the spread
Jets should keep their strategy of spreading the goal-scoring potential.
Bowness’ expert move to spread the scoring potential around the three lines, could deliver results.
Bowness moved Mark Scheifele to the right wing, reducing his responsibility on defence. While it was a new location for him, he was playing on a top line with the left winger Kyle Connor and centre Pierre-Luc Dubois.
The first time it was attempted against the Detroit Red Wings, the trio managed to score 2 goals in the 6 – 2 win. The next six games that followed, the trio brought in 17 points for the Jets; nine goals and eight assists.
Not just the Top Line
The Second and Third Lines got a revamp and that’s also working. Bowness made some interesting trios like the following:
Second Line: Vladislav Namestnikov between Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. Ehlers has been given more opportunity to flex. He managed at least one point in five of his last six games.
Third Line: Adam Lowry between Mason Appleton and Nino Niederreiter. Niederreiter has been a real boon to the line, providing speed and physicality as well boosting Lowry and Appleton’s ability to score.
The Jets managed to score 26 times in each of the seven last games thanks to the reshuffle.
The Jets rallied as a team in the last few games and that helped them clinch their place in the Playoffs. That’s going to be significant given that the Playoffs can be a very unforgiving period.
That means the Jets need to be united.
The Wild game was wild and there were situations where it showed the team acting like a unit. Take for example, the attack by Hartman on Ehlers. It forced Brendan Dillon to step up to an enforcer role and throw fists at Hartman.
This kind of character is going to be invaluable given that the Playoffs can be a very unforgiving period.
Don’t get home-sick
The Road game is going to be an issue and it’s something Jets need to find a coping strategy for if they’re going to get through Game 1 and 2.
Their record at home is 26 – 13 – 2 compared to 20 – 20 – 1 on the road. The Knights will host them at the T-Mobile Arena from Tuesday and if Knights snatch the first two games, can the Jets claw it back? They’ll need to aim for a split.
Exploit the Power Play
While the Jets recorded the ninth-most opportunities for Power Plays in the NHL this season (267), it’s going to be a difficult one to capitalise on against the Knights.
The Knights are more disciplined and give the fewest opportunities away for Power Plays to their opponents, only 195 this season.
If the Jets do get one, the Knights aren’t that great at killing them. They finished 19th in Penalty kills with 77.44% efficiency.
Jets are sixth this season on the Penalty Kills with a 82.6% efficiency.
Who do you think will take the Series?