Jets’ Upcoming Homestand Is a Playoff Primer

The Winnipeg Jets have just come off a challenging Eastern road trip in which they captured four out of a possible eight points, but played some of their best hockey since before their February slump (and might have returned to Bell MTS Place with five or six points if it wasn’t for a controversial goalie interference call that erased Bryan Little’s game-tying goal Sunday evening against the Washington Capitals).

Winnipeg Jets Sami Niku Ben Chiarot
The Jets began their four-game road trip with a 5-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, in which Sami Niku (right) opened the scoring, assisted by Ben Chiarot. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

While the road trip through Columbus, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Washington was a demanding one versus formidable foes, the Jets’ three-game homestand beginning Tuesday will be even tougher. While the Jets won’t face any of their upcoming opponents — the San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, and Calgary Flames — in the first round of the playoffs, the trio represent examples of the level of competition and echelon of teams the Jets will see when the regular season is but a memory. How the Jets fare this week will be indicative of how serious a Cup contender they truly are.

Let’s take a quick look at the three match-ups on tap between Tuesday and Saturday.

West Side Story — Act Three

The third and final act this season between the Jets and the Sharks in downtown Winnipeg should be a good rumble, as good as any the two gangs of the same names had New York City’s Upper West Side.

The Jets and Sharks split their first two meetings of the year. On Feb. 5, the Sharks left Winnipeg a 3-2 winner thanks to Joe Pavelski’s shorty with 2:11 left in the extra frame that came after an O-zone turnover by Patrik Laine and indecisive defensive play on the two-on-one by Blake Wheeler. The heart-wrenching loss was really the beginning of the Jets’ February slump; they went just 2-4-1 between then and the end of the month.

The Jets got the better of the Sharks in a fast-and-furious matchup on Dec. 20, when Nikolaj Ehlers scored one of the ugliest hat tricks in team history to pace his club to a 5-3 victory.

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets, NHL
Nikolaj Ehlers scored a strange hat trick in a 5-3 win over the Sharks on Dec. 20. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sharks — with a Monday night win over the Minnesota Wild — have 92 points and have leaped over the Flames for first in the Pacific Division. They are riding a five-game winning streak and have outscored their opponents 20-9 over that span.

The Sharks are dangerous for a number of reasons. They’ve got a stacked blue line capable of putting up piles of points — Brent Burns leads the club with 73 and is Mark Giordano’s only real competition in the 2019 Norris Trophy race. Erik Karlsson is a big contributor to their attack too, but the Jets will not have to contend with the slick Swede as he’s dealing with a groin injury.

Brent Burns - Sharks
Brent Burns, with 73 points, is one of the NHL’s most offensively-gifted defensemen. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another big reason for the Sharks’ success is their ability — like the Jets — to roll four lines capable of scoring. The Sharks have nine players with 40-plus points this season (in descending order: Burns, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Evander Kane, Kevin Labanc, Karlsson, and Joe Thornton) while the Jets have six (Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Kevin Hayes, Patrik Laine, and Bryan Little.)

Expect Tuesday’s match up to be a strategic one in which absolutely any skater could be the difference maker for their side.

An Exhilarating Matchup Brewin’

Call them the comeback kings, the cardiac kids, or any other phrase you feel best describes them, but there’s no denying the Boston Bruins have played a ton of exciting — and excellent — hockey this season. They’ve been the talk of the league lately, as they put up a 19-game point streak — the second-longest in team history — that was only snapped Sunday by the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’re 42-18-9 and second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division.

The Beantown squad has a penchant for rousing, come-from-behind victories. Their flair for the dramatic has been especially apparent in the past week: last Tuesday, they trailed the Hurricanes 3-1 but came out with a 4-3 OT victory on Thursday, they trailed the Florida Panthers 3-2 with less than a minute to play in the third but scored with 47 seconds left to tie it and seven seconds left to win it; and on Saturday, David Krejci scored a last-minute goal to give his team a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

Boston Bruins Tuukka Rask Brad Marchand Patrice Bergeron
The Boston Bruins can never be counted out of a game. Their three comeback wins in the span of a week, which pushed a point streak to 19 games, is clear evidence of that indisputable fact.  (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

The Jets have tussled with the Bruins just once this season, back on Jan. 29. In that game, the Jets made a comeback of their own. They entered the third period down 2-1, but Kyle Connor — who the Bruins passed on with three consecutive picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft — scored back-to-back goals just 34 seconds apart. Patrice Bergeron tied it 3-3 midway through the third and the game went to a shootout, where Connor’s successful attempt completed the comeback.

Like the Sharks, the Bruins will be missing a key cog in the Thursday meeting  — their ferocious top trio will be sans David Pastrnak due to a thumb injury. However, Brad Marchand (28 goals and 54 assists) and Patrice Bergeron (25 goals and 38 assists) are still more than capable of producing even without the 22-year-old right winger to complete their line.

Related – Boston Bruins: No Pastrnak, No Problem

It may sound cliche, but winning this game will require a complete 60-minute effort from the Jets. 59 minutes won’t be enough, because it’s obvious that even when it seems the Bruins are down-and-out, they can still get back up and rip teams apart.

Can Jet Fuel Finally Snuff Out Flames?

The Calgary Flames haven’t been as scorching lately — as of this writing, they have lost four out of their past five games. However, at 42-20-7 and second in the Pacific Division, they’re still one of the league’s elite teams and one that has been too hot for the Jets to handle this season.

The Flames triumphed over the Jets in both of the squads’ meetings so far this season. On Nov. 21, they scored five in the first period en route to an easy 6-3 victory, and on Dec. 27, Johnny Gaudreau scored a hat trick to pace his team to a 4-1 win.

Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames
Johnny Gaudreau has four goals and five points in two games against the Jets this season. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Flames have been one of the NHL’s best road teams this season and are one of just five clubs with 20-plus wins in enemy territory. Their status as true road warriors was explored earlier this month by THW’s own Rick LaFitte, who credited their tight defensive play, strong goalie tandem, and depth scoring in allowing them to go 5-2-2 away from home in February.

Starting strong in this one — way stronger than they did in their previous two against the Flames — and opening the scoring will be key for the Jets. The Jets are 24-8-3 when scoring first and 13-3-0 when scoring first at home, while Flames are 34-4-1 when scoring first and 16-3-0 when scoring first on the road. In the Flames’ recent four-game slide, their opponents scored the opening goal each time and the Flames never led in any of them.

Expect Playoff Atmosphere at Bell MTS Place

Bell MTS Place has been a bit less raucous this season than in seasons gone by, and definitely not as rowdy as last spring when the Winnipeg Whiteout made it a truly hostile atmosphere for visitors. The lack of noise is something the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre noted a while ago, writing “it’s noteworthy just how quiet the rink is on many nights this season,” and that “even the booing is muted” (from ‘Planes, trains, and contract pains,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 02/06/19.)

Winnipeg Jets Fans White Out
Fans of the Winnipeg Jets welcome their team to the ice as they took on the Minnesota Wild in Game One of the Western Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 11, 2018 at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images)

McIntyre posited the suggestion that “maybe expectations have been raised so high now that it’s tough for anyone to get too excited about a routine regular-season game, especially when it’s not exactly a mystery whether the Jets will make the playoffs.”

None of the three upcoming clashes are “routine regular-season games.” They’re games that will show everyone what the Jets are made of; they’re measuring sticks that will show if the team’s capable of chasing the Cup. Expect the fans to know how much these games mean and adapt accordingly. The league’s best are coming, and count on the fans to bring their best and give the arena the awesome atmosphere it’s known for.