WINNIPEG – There’s always great debate when it comes to how wide the window of contention is for teams chasing the Stanley Cup.
A year ago, the Winnipeg Jets entered the tournament as one of the clear-cut favourites, despite a rocky second half that saw them slip to second place in the Central Division near the end of the regular season.
After reaching the Western Conference final in 2018, the expectations were sky high and the belief was that the Jets had the talent to take the next step.
It turns out the St. Louis Blues had other ideas, bouncing the Jets in the first round of a six-game series whose turning point was obvious.
With the series tied 2-2, the Jets jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 5 and nearly made it 3-0 around the midway point of the second period.
Kevin Hayes had the puck behind Jordan Binnington, but as he was taken to the ice by Blues defenceman Colton Parayko, Hayes accidentally knocked the puck out of the net instead of into it.
The Blues rallied, with Jaden Schwartz providing the dagger in the waning seconds of regulation time.
St. Louis never looked back and the Jets never recovered.
Although the scoreboard said 3-2 in the series clincher, the Jets scored twice in the third period to make the final score closer than it actually was. Make no mistake, the outcome was never really in doubt — even if the comeback attempt was admirable.
And just like that, the Jets had followed up their longest run in franchise history with a disappointing first-round exit.
History has shown that for some teams, there is just as much (or more) learning that comes from those heartbreaks before a breakthrough is actually possible.
What does that mean for the Jets as they returned to the ice on Monday to begin preparations for their best-of-five play-in series with the Calgary Flames?
With nearly five months between games by the time Aug. 1 arrives, it’s clear the questions are going to outweigh the answers.
What we do know is that the Jets spent the majority of this season as a bubble team, bouncing back and forth between above and below the playoff line.
So you can eliminate favourites from any label you might want to attach to them.
This isn’t to suggest the Jets are going to be left wearing the glass slipper at the end of the ball.
This isn’t a bottom-feeder club either, so for the time being, let’s explore the reasons the Jets should be viewed as a sleeper.
THE JETS ARE BATTLE TESTED
As mentioned earlier, a good chunk of this core group is preparing for its third playoff run (several holdovers were part of another in 2015, when the Jets played well for long stretches but their inexperience showed in being swept by the Anaheim Ducks) and that has its advantages.
There has been one long and prosperous run (resulting in the first nine playoff victories in franchise history dating back to the Atlanta Thrashers days) and two early exits.
Obviously, these playoffs are going to be like none other because of the circumstances regarding the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t lessons to be learned from the road already travelled.
“You don’t have to explain to your players what playoffs look like,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “Which, you go back two years, we had to. We didn’t really have the guys that have ever played a playoff game, let alone had a long run. But now we have consecutive years where our drivers are familiar with how the playoffs work, and that was a big impact on us in that we were so young. That experience is very important.”
The Jets have also learned to block out the outside noise that comes with the territory this time of the year when you play in a Canadian market.
“In our room, we kind of manage our own expectations. We’re not too concerned with what people outside our team are thinking, what they’re writing, what they’re saying about us,” centre Adam Lowry said. “We have one goal in this room. It starts against the Flames and hopefully we can continue on.
“All year we’ve kind of battled injuries, battled different things and we are going to the playoffs pretty healthy and rested and we’re looking forward to putting that team on the ice and seeing what happens.”
UNDER-THE-RADAR MOVES OFTEN PAY OFF
Think of the Washington Capitals in 2018.
When Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan picked up Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks, the move barely made a ripple when it showed up on the list of transactions.
Most viewed it as a minor depth move.
But Kempny, an occasional healthy scratch with the Blackhawks, ended up playing important minutes on the second pairing as the Capitals defeated the Golden Knights in five games to win their first Stanley Cup.
Dylan DeMelo was never in danger of being a healthy scratch with the Ottawa Senators, but he’s the type of guy who doesn’t get a lot of headlines. And yet, he does the little things necessary to make life easier for his defence partner.
The Jets made a second move, picking up centre Cody Eakin from Vegas for a conditional fourth round pick in 2021 that would be upgraded to a third if Winnipeg qualifies for the playoffs or the Winnipegger re-signs with his hometown team.
Like Paul Stastny and Hayes before him, Eakin ended up centring the second line but the cost of acquisition was much lower than a first-round pick the prior two players garnered.
Eakin has brought a bit more edge to the Jets’ lineup and provided some secondary scoring to go with the experience of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final with the Golden Knights.
Should the Jets go on a run of any kind, you can bet DeMelo and Eakin will have a positive impact.
THE JETS HAVE ELITE GOALTENDING
In a coin-flip series, it’s rarely a bad idea to bet on the team with a proven netminder.
When the Los Angeles Kings captured the Stanley Cup in 2012, Jonathan Quick was in the middle of everything, beginning with the first-round upset over the Vancouver Canucks.
Those playoffs ended with Quick winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.
While the Kings were the eighth seed in the Western Conference that year, the Jets are entering the play-in round as the ninth seed, mere percentage points behind the Flames.
In order for the Jets to make some noise, Vezina Trophy front-runner Connor Hellebuyck will need to shine — and that’s exactly what his teammates expect him to do.
“Thank goodness we gave him a little rest,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “We worked him out pretty good this year. He had an outstanding season. We’re not sitting here talking to you guys without the work that he did this year. We definitely draw a lot of confidence from having him in between the pipes.”
When the stakes are highest, the man behind the mask is often the most important player on the ice.
“We feel we have the best goalie in the league, so when he’s on top of his game, he can win games on his own,” forward Mathieu Perreault said. “This is what playoff hockey is all about. If you want to win the Stanley Cup, it’s most times the team with the goalie that’s one of the hottest. We feel like we have that here, so that’s why we have a legitimate chance of winning this Cup.”