With three games remaining in the final week of the season, two against the draft lottery-bound Vancouver Canucks and one against the North Division champion Toronto Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets had one last chance to build momentum heading into their first-round matchup against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.
After posting an abysmal 2-8-0 record before that final week, the Jets flipped a switch, winning the final two to ride a surprising wave of confidence into the playoffs. The difference was like night and day. Their top-six returned to form, racking up impressive point totals across the three games. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was better and seemed more like himself, and the defense, while not elite, looked rejuvenated and held their own.
What does this mean? Are the Jets going to win the Stanley Cup? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that (although it is possible), but those final games may have provided a glimpse of what’s to come, which hopefully means competitive hockey and advancing to the second round at least.
Overall, the team turned a corner as the season wound down, regaining some of the confidence that was lost during their disastrous losing streak. Now trending in a more positive direction as they touch down in Edmonton, I will tee up this highly anticipated first-round matchup and what we can expect from the Jets.
Season Series Was Not Kind to Winnipeg
While players spent their final regular-season press conferences saying things like, “the regular season really doesn’t matter” or “the playoffs are a different animal,” I want to remind you that the regular season is not worthless. Especially this season, when teams only played within their division, the 56 games provided an in-depth look at how teams match up against each other. However, this regular-season series didn’t do the Jets any favours.
The Jets struggled mightily against the Oilers, and the numbers are ugly at best. Winnipeg had a dismal 2-7-0 record against Edmonton, and a points percentage of .222. They also had a -12 goal differential and their special teams were 5 percent worse than the Oilers (both the penalty kill and power play).
On top of that, the Jets played their worst hockey against Edmonton by a wide margin; they were outscored 39-22 in nine games, finding no answer for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Hellebuyck was consistently outdueled by Oilers goalie Mike Smith, who seems to be resurrecting his career with each game he plays, and the Jets’ top offensive weapons were relatively held in check. It’s not exactly a recipe for success against their first-round opponent.
However, there are ways the Jets can compete in this series and maybe even make it past the Oilers. Here are the keys to their success.
Winnipeg Jets: 4 Keys to Success
1. Keep McDavid Contained
McDavid dominated the Jets this season, with 22 points in nine contests to match his highest point total against any North Division opponent. The Oilers’ captain recorded at least two points in every game, and he should be priority one for every Jet on the ice.
2. Dubois and Ehlers Need to Contribute
Whenever they return to the lineup, Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois will be tasked with finding the back of the net, something the Jets had trouble doing against the Oilers this season. Ehlers, who has been out of the lineup for nearly a month, has been one of the Jets’ best players at 5-on-5 and led the team in scoring against the Oilers with eight points in nine games. He again skated in a non-contact jersey at practice on Monday, and there are no guarantees that he’ll be ready to return when the series kicks off on Wednesday.
Pierre-Luc Dubois is another concerning case. The former 3rd-overall pick is goalless in 17 straight games, and he has not practiced since the end of the regular season after sustaining an injury against the Maple Leafs in the final game. While he hasn’t been ruled out for Game 1, the Jets desperately need him to find the scoresheet if they intend to find success against the Oilers.
3. Hellebuyck Needs To Be Better
I never thought I’d say this but Smith is better than Hellebuyck. In the nine-game series, Hellebuyck has a 2-5-0 record in seven starts, and an ugly .877 save percentage (SV%), his worst against any North Division opponent. On the flip side, Smith was undefeated (4-0-0) with a sparkling .936 SV%. Any way you look at it, Hellebuyck could be what separates the Jets from the second round.
4. Jets Need to Take Advantage of Depth, Matchup Game
On the bright side, the Jets have the upper hand in forward depth. Their third line of Mason Appleton, Adam Lowry, and Andrew Copp has been one of the league’s best this season and provides that much-needed support to Winnipeg’s top-six. Edmonton, on the other hand, has lacked similar depth for the better part of a decade and will likely ice a line with Devin Shore and Josh Archibald to match up against the Appleton-Lowry-Copp trio. Should this be the case, the Jets need to take advantage and exploit a weakness that continues to plague the Oilers.
The Jets should also take advantage of the matchups that fall in their favour. Darnell Nurse, who’s enjoying a remarkable season, was matched up against Mark Scheifele for most of the season series. He has logged more minutes against Scheifele than anyone else in the North Division, and, in turn, the Oilers have outscored the Jets 10-2 while the two are on the ice.
If you’re the Jets, this can’t happen in the postseason. This is also where Winnipeg’s depth comes into play. Not only do their top players need to be better in high-leverage matchups, the team as a whole needs to be better at squaring off against Edmonton’s top players and should take advantage whenever they’re on the bench.
The Bottom Line
While the Jets are riding a hot streak into the playoffs, the bottom line is that they don’t match up well against the Oilers and the regular season proved why. Tasking any team with shutting down McDavid is hard enough, but asking a team who hasn’t proved they can limit his production or match his skillset to do it in less than a week is practically impossible.
Yes, Winnipeg has more depth and, at times, better goaltending, but this season hasn’t been a successful one in the eyes of many. Hellebuyck has been inconsistent, the blue line has been another revolving door of temporary solutions, and the top-six hasn’t generated much against Mike Smith, who has played lights out all season. Not to mention, the status of Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois is still questionable, adding more doubt to how much success the Jets will have against the Oilers.
I believe that Hellebuyck will stand on his head in one game, and I think the Jets’ offense will outscore McDavid and Draisaitl in another, but I don’t believe the Jets can keep up with Edmonton’s superstars in a seven-game series. Relying on your players to step up after their recent struggles and counting on McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, and Smith to hit slumps at the same time just isn’t a safe bet.
Series Prediction: Oilers in 6
How do you think the Jets will do against the Oilers? What are the keys to Winnipeg’s success moving forward? Let me know in the comments.
A sport media student at Ryerson University, Josh Kim is currently a photographer with Ryerson, the ECHL and OHL and has covered a variety of events ranging from the PWHPA to the NCAA. In addition to being a Winnipeg Jets writer, World Junior contributor, and NHL Draft columnist with THW, he is the host of the Get Your Head in the Game podcast, which connects mental health and sport and is available on all platforms. If you’re interested in seeing a full display of his work, please visit his website: joshkimphoto.com