A year ago, the Winnipeg Jets entered the tournament as one of the favorites for sure, despite an eventful second period that saw them slip into second place in the Central Division towards the end of the regular season .
After reaching the Western Conference final in 2018, the expectations were huge and the belief was that the Jets had the talent to take the next step.
As it turns out, the St. Louis Blues had other ideas, bouncing the Jets in the first round of an obviously turning six-game series.
With the tied streak 2-2, the Jets took a 2-0 lead in Game 5 and almost made it 3-0 in the middle of the second period.
Kevin Hayes had the puck behind Jordan Binnington, but as he was brought on the ice by Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, Hayes accidentally threw the puck out of the net instead of entering it.
The Blues rallied, Jaden Schwartz providing the dagger in the last seconds of regulation time.
Saint-Louis never looked back and the Jets never recovered.
Although the scoreboard shows 3-2 in the series win, the Jets scored twice in the third period to make the final score closer than it really was. Make no mistake, the result has never really been in doubt – even if the return attempt has been admirable.
And just like that, the Jets had followed their longest journey in franchise history with a disappointing first-round outing.
History has shown that for some teams, there is as much (or more) learning that comes from these sorrows before a breakthrough is really possible.
What does it mean for the Jets as they return to the ice on Monday to begin preparations for their five-game streak with the Calgary Flames?
With nearly five months between games on August 1, it is clear that the questions will outweigh the answers.
What we do know is that the Jets have spent most of this season as a bubble team, bouncing between above and below the playoff line.
You can therefore remove the favorites from any label you want to attach to them.
This does not mean that the Jets will be left to wear the glass slipper at the end of the ball.
It’s also not a bottom feed club, so for now, let’s explore the reasons why the Jets should be considered a sleeper.
JETS ARE TESTED IN BATTLE
As mentioned earlier, a good portion of this unit group is preparing for their third playoff series (several remnants were part of another in 2015, when the Jets played well for long periods but their inexperience has shown that they have been swept away by the Anaheim Ducks) and that has its perks.
There was a long and successful race (leading to the first nine playoff victories in franchise history dating back to the Atlanta Thrashers) and two early outings.
Obviously, these playoffs will not be like any other due to the circumstances of the pandemic, but that does not mean that there were no lessons to be learned from the road already traveled.
“You don’t have to explain to your players what the playoffs look like,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Which, you go back two years, we had to. We really didn’t have the guys who had played a playoff game, let alone the long run. But now we have consecutive years where our drivers are familiar with how the playoffs work, and it has been a big impact for us in that we were so young. This experience is very important. ”
The Jets have also learned to block outside noise that accompanies the territory at this time of the year when you play in a Canadian market.
“In our room, we sort of manage our own expectations. We are not too concerned about what people outside our team think, what they write, what they say about us, ”said center Adam Lowry. “We have a goal in this room. It starts against the Flames and I hope we can continue.
“All year long we’ve sort of fought injuries, fought different things and we’re going to the playoffs healthy and rested and we can’t wait to get this team on the ice and see what’s going on.”
MOVEMENTS UNDER RADAR ARE OFTEN PAID
Think of the Washington Capitals in 2018.
When Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took on Michal Kempny of the Chicago Blackhawks, the movement barely made a ripple when he appeared on the transaction list.
Most considered it a minor movement of depth.
But Kempny, an occasional scratch with the Blackhawks, ended up playing important minutes in game two as the Capitals defeated the Golden Knights in five games to win their first Stanley Cup.
Dylan DeMelo has never been in danger of being a healthy scratch with the Ottawa Senators, but he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t hit the headlines. And yet he does the little things necessary to make life easier for his defense partner.
The Jets took a second step, picking up Vegas center Cody Eakin for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2021 that would be improved to a third if Winnipeg qualifies for the playoffs or the Winnipegger re-signs with his hometown team natal.
Like Paul Stastny and Hayes before him, Eakin ended up centering the second line, but the acquisition cost was much lower than a first round choice that the two previous players had collected.
Eakin brought a little more avant-garde to the Jets’ training and provided a number of secondary points to accompany the experience of advancing to the Stanley Cup final with the Golden Knights.
If the Jets race, you can bet that DeMelo and Eakin will have a positive impact.
JETS HAVE AN ELITE GUARDIAN
In a series of chips, it is rarely a bad idea to bet on the team with a proven goalkeeper.
When the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, Jonathan Quick was in the middle of everything, starting with the first inning against the Vancouver Canucks.
These qualifiers ended with Quick winning the Conn Smythe trophy.
While the Kings were eighth seeded in the Western Conference that year, the Jets entered the game as ninth seeded, just a few percentage points from the Flames.
For the Jets to make noise, Vezina Trophy favorite Connor Hellebuyck will need to shine – and that’s exactly what his teammates expect him to do.
“Thank goodness we gave him some rest,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “We worked on it pretty well this year. He had an exceptional season. We are not sitting here talking to you without the work he has done this year. We certainly gain a lot of confidence from having it in the pipeline. ”
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 goalkeeper in the league, so when he’s at the top of his game, he can win games on his own,” said forward Mathieu Perreault. “That’s what hockey playoff hockey is for. If you want to win the Stanley Cup, most of the time the hottest team is the team with the goalkeeper. We feel like we have this here, which is why we have a legitimate chance to win this Cup. “