by Scott Swail
On most hockey nights this season, the Winnipeg Jets have looked like a pretty darn good hockey team. Picked by most of the critics to bottom out in their division this year, the Jets have shown their worth and entry to the NHL elite teams.
Some (including me) have previously argued Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s slow-and-grow approach would not propel the Jets to a vaulted level in the NHL. But his method has paid off dividends this year, with young player beginning to fill significant roles on this large and fast team. And there are more young guys in the system that will come up over the next two years. Cheveldayoff has also been criticized for not making big trades to beef this team up. In the rear-view mirror, his one big splash trade sending Evander Kane and Zack Bogosian to Buffalo has turned into a pivotal trade for this team. And this year’s trade deadline push to bring veteran Paul Stastny to the Jets was an exceptional move to ready this team for the playoffs.
So here we are. With 12 games left in the season, the Jets have 92 points and are a solid second in the Central Division, trailing only Nashville, the team that Cheveldayoff and Winnipeg management has patterned the Jets 2.0. We are close enough to the playoffs that we can take a look at what could happen to the Jets this year. Most certainly they will make the playoffs. Even though it is mathematically possible to face elimination, it won’t happen. This team has too much speed and talent to take a back seat now.
There are two important questions right now: the first is quite simple: who will they play? And the second: will the Jets be healthy?
If the playoffs started today, the Jets would play Minnesota in the first round. At this point, that is likely how the regular season will end unless Dallas makes a run for it. St. Louis isn’t out of it, but they better start making a run for a wild card position.
The Jets have played well against the Wild, winning three of four games this season. This is turning into a great NHL rivalry, so the series would not only be interesting, but also one that should put the Jets into the second round if they play consistently. And that’s where things likely stop for this team, because then they’ll be forced to play the best team in the league right now, the Nashville Predators.
Nashville has won three of four games against the Jets thus far, with one more match set for March 25th at the Telephone Booth on Portage. If last night is any barometer of where these teams sit, the Predators will beat the Jets pretty handily. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, they were hampered by a back-to-back, losing to Washington in a tough and sloppy game on Monday night. It was evident the game took its toll, as the Jets barely showed up in the first period against the Predators. By the nine-minute mark, Jets backup goalie Michael Hutchinson was gone and Connor Hellebuyck was back in net. But not much can be put on Hutchinson’s shoulders. At that point in the game, the Predators had already fired 15 shots at the Jet’s goalie and would end up with 24 shots in the first frame alone and a total of 45 for the night. The Jets took a period to get the lactic acid out of their system and played better for the remainder, but in the best league in the world, a three-goal deficit becomes difficult to overcome.
As of last night, the Predators launched into first place in the NHL, kicking the Golden Knights, who have held that position for most of the season, out of the lead. If the Jets meet the Preds in the second round, that could be all she wrote for the Jets. And as good as Winnipeg has been this year, one wonders if the Jets and Predators will assume the position of the Jets and Oilers of the 1980s, where Winnipeg was forced to play a team that won five Stanley Cups in seven years to get out of the division.
What is most amazing about this Winnipeg Jets team this year is their bend-not-break play given the injuries that have plagued this team. Right now, the Jets are missing Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, Toby Entrom, Steve Mason, and Dmitry Kulikov. Newcomer Paul Stastny was a scratch at game time due to a lower-body injury and Shawn Mattias came back from injury last night. It is tough to play top-shelf hockey with so many injuries, and while the Jets have not looked very good as of late, they have remained better than competitive while dealing with the injury bug. That says a lot about the backbenchers on this team and coach Maurice and his crew deserve a lot of the credit.
The good news is that all of the above should be back before the playoffs begin. And, given the large advantage that the Jets have in points over their competition in the Central Division, they can afford to lose a few of these games and coast. By playoff time, this team should be as good as they have been all year, injury wise. For the Minnesota Wild, that shouldn’t comfort them in any way.
One thing for sure: if Winnipeg vs. Nashville happens, it should be a great series with plenty of action and fisticuffs.