The Winnipeg Jets don’t need any help if they want to finish in first place in the North Division. Despite losing their past two games, they still control their own destiny in a very important quest.
Jets Right in the Thick of a Three-Way Race
With three weeks to go before the utterly unique 2020-21 season wraps up, either the Jets, Edmonton Oilers, or Toronto Maple Leafs are going to capture the first (and hopefully only) North Division crown.
Entering play Saturday, the Jets have 10 games to go and sit in second place with 57 points. That puts them six behind the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs, who have nine games to go and 63 points. The Sheldon Keefe-led squad has scuffled lately but halted a five-game losing streak with a 5-3 win over the Jets on Thursday.
Hot on both teams’ heels is the Edmonton Oilers, who have 56 points and 11 games to go.
The Jets have never finished first in their division since relocating from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season. The closest they came was in 2018-19, when they finished with 99 points in the Central, one point behind the Nashville Predators. Recall, the Jets controlled their own fate that season as well but fell apart down the stretch and made a disappointing first-round exit to the St. Louis Blues.
Schedule Puts Jets and Top Teams Head-to-Head
The Jets host the Maple Leafs again tonight before the Oilers come to town for two games on April 26 and April 28. The Jets will also face the Maple Leafs in their last game of the season on May 14. It would be quite the storyline if first place was on the line that night.
To finish first, succeeding in those four games — and doing what they have to do against the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, and Vancouver Canucks, who they’ll meet in between — will be paramount.
As the old saying goes: “to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
Finishing First is Important…
And not just because it’d be neat to be the first-ever North Division champion and have a new banner hanging from the rafters of Bell MTS Place. It’s so the Jets can face the Canadiens and avoid a match up with the Maple Leafs or Oilers in the first round.
The Canadiens will finish fourth barring a meteoric rise or epic collapse, as they’re well clear of the fifth-place Flames with a game in hand. The Jets have done well against the Canadiens this season, posting a 6-2-0 record against them. Most recently, they won both games of a two-game set at the Bell Centre on a five-game road trip.
The Jets have done alright against the Maple Leafs, going 3-3-2. However, despite the Leafs’ recent struggles and historic lack of playoff success — they haven’t won a series since 2004, when this author was nine and Mats Sundin was in his prime — they’re still a deep and scary squad, with Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and others. They certainly showed some swagger and skill on Thursday.
The Jets have done poorly against the Oilers, going 2-5-0 thus far. They’ve dropped the last four straight in regulation against McDavid and company and have scored just five goals in those games. McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have eaten Mark Scheifele’s line for lunch, goaltender Mike Smith has gobbled up nearly all the rubber sent his way, and the Oilers stifling defense has left the Jets starving for chances.
“The fight for first place — really important,” head coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday of the games ahead. “(The Maple Leafs and Oilers) are now potentially first-round opponents, so you’re constantly measuring, finding out what they’re trying to do to expose your game, what you’re trying to do to them, weighing those, they’ll be important.”
Jets Have No Excuses for Subpar Play Down the Stretch
They’re nearly completely healthy, with captain Blake Wheeler back in the lineup after missing six with a concussion but Adam Lowry possibly out after taking a dirty headshot from Alex Galchenyuk. They’re a deep team with offensive threats throughout the lineup. They’ve got the reigning Vezina Trophy-winner in Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes.
They don’t need outside help. They simply need to help themselves to the opportunity sitting in front of them.