It took longer than it should have taken and was harder than it should have been, but the Winnipeg Jets are heading back to the playoffs. They will face the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 1 beginning Tuesday.
By clinching the second Western Conference Wild Card spot in their 81st game of the season with a 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild Tuesday, the Jets — who had a great first half before suffering an extended slide — avoided being the first team in NHL history lead a conference more than halfway through a season but miss the playoffs, and also avoided missing the postseason derby for the second-straight season.
The Jets, the only playoff team in the Western Conference with fewer than 100 points, will be underdogs against the Golden Knights, who finished first in the Conference with 51 wins and 111 points.
Latest News & Highlights
Although a first-round exit might be worse for the franchise’s long-term trajectory than missing the playoffs, anything can happen in the postseason. If the Jets want to be more than a doormat to the second round for their opponent, there are five key things they must do.
1: Keep Rolling Their Current Lines, Because They’re Working
Head coach Rick Bowness constantly tinkered with the forward lines during the team’s second half struggles, searching in vain for some combination that would get them back to their formidable first-half form. Late last month, he finally found the secret formula that spread the scoring prowess between three lines.
Prior to March 31st’s game versus the Detroit Red Wings, he moved the quiet-quitting Mark Scheifele to right wing, even though he’d never played there before, with centre Pierre-Luc Dubois and left-winger Kyle Connor. Giving Scheifele less defensive responsibility paid immediate dividends, as the trio combined for two goals and four points in a 6-2 win over the Red Wings. In the six games they were together, that new-look top line combined for nine goals and eight assists for 17 points.
At the same time, Bowness revamped the second and third lines, putting Vladislav Namestnikov between Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler, and Adam Lowry between Mason Appleton and Nino Niederreiter. In the final seven, the team scored 26 times after scoring just nine goals and being shut out three times in the seven before that.
The second line has put up strong underlying numbers and Ehlers has been free to wheel and deal. He had at least a point in five of his last six.
Moving Namestnikov — generally considered a bottom-six journeyman — up and Niederreiter down was crucial. Niederreiter, acquired from the Nashville Predators for just a second-round pick in late February, has complemented Appleton and Lowry well with his direct, speedy, and physical play style. He’s also unlocked their offensive ability, as both Appleton and Lowry scored in back-to-back games against the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild.
Heading into the postseason, keeping these lines’ chemistry going will be key. “We need that balance,” Bowness told reporters recently. “If you’re going to win, especially in the playoffs, you need that balance and you need your bottom half to contribute.”
Of course, this is all contingent on Ehlers being ready to go for Game 1. He was forced to leave in the third period against the Wild after Ryan Hartman plastered him with a dirty headshot (more on that later). He missed the final game of the season against the Colorado Avalanche, but was not in concussion protocol.
2: Remember Recent History, But Don’t Dwell On It
MoneyPuck.com gives the Golden Knights just a 50.2 chance to win the series, and the matchup holds the site’s most even odds of the first round. The odds seem generous to the Jets, though, based on recent history.
The Golden Knights beat the Jets in all three of the teams’ matchups this season, winning 5-2 on Oct. 20, 2-1 in overtime on Oct. 30, and 6-5 on Dec. 13. The first game was the worst of the Jets’ young season, the second wouldn’t have even gotten to overtime if not for 46 saves from Connor Hellebuyck, and the third was sloppy defensively.
Bowness spoke during the Jets’ battle for a playoff spot about the need to stay in the moment. The Jets will have to come into the series remembering why they weren’t able to beat the Golden Knights in regular season play, but also with the mentality that the playoffs are a different beast altogether and that past results don’t necessarily dictate what will happen.
The Jets who were with the team back in 2018 — there are seven of them — will also be looking for some measure of redemption. The then-expansion Golden Knights, of course, beat the Jets in five games in the Western Conference Final, which is still the Jets’ deepest playoff run since relocation.
Jonathan Marchessault did big damage in that series with four goals and two assists. He’s still with the Golden Knights and led them in goals with 28 and was third in points with 57. He will be looking to have another big series.
3: Keep Sticking Up for Each Other and Being Aggressive
The Jets had to get things turned around to qualify for the playoffs, and they did that, winning five of their final six meaningful games. After seeming fragile and fractured for most of February and March, they once again look tight-knit and ready to battle for each other.
The game against the Wild was the perfect example of the team adopting the mantra Bowness has used all season and one they must follow in the playoffs: “If they come after one of us, they come after all of us.”
The third period against the Wild was a clown show, with the refereeing duo of Trevor Hanson and Jean Hebert losing total control over the proceedings after allowing an obvious hit from behind by Ryan Reaves on Dylan DeMelo to go unpenalized.
After Hartman delivered a dirty headshot to a vulnerable Ehlers in the neutral zone that resulted in only a minor (and later a one-game suspension), it was imperative the Jets show they wouldn’t let such antics go without a response. Brenden Dillon dropped the mitts with Hartman a few minutes later, and in the final minute — after Wild head coach Dean Evason sent out Reaves down a pair instead of a scorer — Adam Lowry stepped up to face the enforcer in a heavyweight bout.
Whistles often go away in the playoffs, as we all know. The Jets may well have to respond in such a way again.
Aggression, of course, goes beyond physicality or standing up for teammates. The Jets were noticeably aggressive in all facets of the game down the stretch and it served them well.
“We’ve been preaching the last little while to stay aggressive, stay aggressive. We’re going for it. And we’re going to stay aggressive,” Bowness said after the Jets beat the Sharks 6-2 last Monday. “The last couple games here, we’ve been very aggressive. We’ve been setting the tone, setting the pace. And that’s when we’re at our best. And that means both sides of the puck, that means not giving up a lot of chances and that means pressuring the other team all over the ice. That’s Winnipeg Jet hockey when we’re doing that.”
4: Find a Way to Grind Out a Road Win
The Jets were not nearly as good away from home as they were in the friendly confines of Canada Life Centre this season. They went just 20-20-1 on the road, as opposed to 26-13-2 at home.
Unfortunately for them, as the lowest seed, they will play Games 1 and 2 at T-Mobile Arena. They need to find a way to win one of them before returning to the Winnipeg Whiteout for Game 3.
Teams who win the first two games of a playoff series held an all-time series record of 330-51 as of 2021, so you can see just how pivotal it is to get at least a split.
5: Win the Special-Teams Battle
The Jets’ power play overall this season was subpar and for long stretches, totally incompetent. At one point in March, they went through a one-for-33 spell and finished the campaign 23rd in the NHL with a 19.3 per cent efficiency.
The regime has shown some signs of life toward the end of the season, scoring four goals in their final six games. It’s not like the Jets weren’t successful at drawing penalties, as they had the ninth-most power play opportunities in the NHL with 267.
The Jets may have trouble drawing penalties against the the highly-disciplined Golden Knights, though, who gave up the fewest power play opportunities in the NHL with just 195. The Golden Knights’ penalty kill wasn’t great when they did have to hit the ice, finishing 19th in the NHL with a 77.44 per cent efficiency.
The Jets penalty kill, on the other hand, was a big point of strength. The revamped units finished sixth in the NHL with a 82.6 per cent efficiency after finishing 29th with a 75.0 per cent efficiency last season.
Related: 4 Jets to Watch in the First Round
Like the Golden Knights, the Jets were not a highly-penalized club, allowing the 12th-fewest power play opportunities in the NHL with 239. They have an opportunity to leverage not being shorthanded too often with being able to kill off the power play opportunities they do allow. As mentioned before, whistles often go away in the playoffs, so plenty of this series should be played five on five.
The Golden Knights’ power play finished 19th in the NHL with 20.29 per cent efficiency, just a tick better than the Jets. As a result, the special-teams battle looks fairly even, but will certainly be key.