The Winnipeg Jets were summarily swept out of the second round out of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, never holding a lead in four games.
They were the higher seed, far more rested, and had good success against the Canadiens in the regular season. None of it seemed to matter. The Jets didn’t even put up a fight against the Habs in a series that ended only six days after it began.
While no one expected the series to be a cakewalk for the Jets, not many were expecting such a pitiful performance on the heels of a dominant sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.
Now that we’re more than 24 hours removed from the Canadiens’ Game 4 overtime victory, let’s take a look at what went wrong for the Jets.
Goal Scorers Disappeared
The Jets scored only seven goals in the entire series and never opened the scoring, hence were chasing the game constantly. Sure, they were missing the suspended Mark Scheifele for Games 2 through 4, but that’s no excuse — there was no reason they shouldn’t have been able to score without him.
Much was made by many throughout the regular season about the Jets’ tremendous goal-scoring depth and the threats littered throughout their lineup. This balanced attack should have served them well in this series and given them a chance to win even if they lost a player or two. In fact, in this mid-February piece on the subject, this author wrote:
“GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has provided head coach Paul Maurice one of the NHL’s top contingencies, and there will be no excuses the coach could possibly use and nothing for him to hide behind if he gets anything less than excellent results out of this dangerous group going forward.”
The results were less than excellent as the offensive threats failed to show up. Blake Wheeler had zero points and was minus-seven. Nikolaj Ehlers had one point (an assist in Game 1) and was minus-5. Kyle Connor had three points (a goal and two assists), but was atrocious defensively.
It doesn’t stop there. Paul Stastny had zero points after missing the first two games due to an injury. As did Andrew Copp, who set career-highs in goals and points in the regular season.
Pierre-Luc Dubois — who was given a huge opportunity to play first-line centre in Scheifele’s stead and finally make an impact — was the most disappointing of all, as he was completely invisible except for when he was taking ill-advised and undisciplined penalties. He was even demoted to the fourth line in Game 4.
The 22-year-old looked nothing like the player who dominated in the Edmonton bubble last summer and finished his season on an almost-unthinkable 24-game goalless streak.
When your top-six players are MIA to that extent, you just don’t have a chance to win.
Defensive-Zone Play Was Disastrous
The Jets had a ton of trouble grasping the basic tenets of defensive-zone play throughout the series, handling the puck like it was a live grenade.
Failures to clear the zone on easy opportunities were rampant and giveaways were egregious. Many of those turnovers and bungled breakouts ended up with the red light heating up the back of Connor Hellebuyck’s neck. The Jets were flummoxed with the Canadien’s relentless forecheck and the Jets had 61 turnovers in the series to the Canadiens’ 38.
Like the excuse that missing Scheifele led to a lack of scoring, head coach Paul Maurice could claim the easy excuse that he lost cerebral breakout specialist Dylan DeMelo in the first minute of the series. But that excuse would be half-baked as slick puck-mover Ville Heinola spent the entire series in the press box while journeyman Jordie Benn played instead. Better options were available.
There were many such examples of poor d-zone play in Game 4 alone. Nate Thompson blew a simple clearance by trying to carry the puck out of the zone but failed to get past the blue line, leading to Erik Gustafsson’s game-opening power play goal.
Ehlers’ terrible one-handed poke into the middle of the ice led to Artturi Lehkonen’s tip-in that put the Habs up 2-0. A disgraceful final two minutes of the third period saw the Jets hemmed in due to at least 6 or 7 whiffs. It was a miracle they forced overtime at all.
Even when turnovers and failed zone exits didn’t result in a goal against, they kept the Jets on their heels and the momentum clearly in the Canadiens’ hands.
Maurice Was Out-Coached
The more experienced coach in Paul Maurice was shown up by rookie bench-boss Dominique Ducharme. Ducharme deserves full marks for crafting a perfect game plan, and his players deserve full marks for executing his plan to a tee.
Ducharme had his side embracing their identity and Maurice didn’t. They were relentless with their neutral-zone forecheck and their stalwart d-core prevented the Jets from carrying the puck into the offensive zone or creating any type of long-term momentum on concurrent shifts.
The Canadiens forced the Jets to dump it in or try to ring it around the boards, which played right into goaltender Carey Price’s wheelhouse. An excellent puck handler, Price was able to corral most dump ins and and help his team get out of their zone in a hurry.
On offence, the Canadiens’ dogged puck pursuit allowed them to get a good cycle going and to tee up shot after shot during extended periods of pressure. They had far better chances than the Jets, and it shows in the lopsided xGF% numbers below.
“In this, they were as good as I’ve seen them be in the game that they played,” Maurice said in his post-game comments, noting he’d seen them operate at a similarly elite level during their three-straight first-round wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “They’re not looking to trade to at all… their forecheck was very very quick on our D and that was a place that we struggled with, clearly,” he said.
Wheeler concurred, saying: “They’re playing at a really high level right now. You just have to give them all the credit. They’re playing a really good game. With the goaltending that they have, any breakdowns, (Price) is putting out those fires. And we just couldn’t get the first goal. We just couldn’t do it all series. That played right into their hands.”
Maurice and Wheeler both noted the Canadiens’ big and heavy top-four defensemen made it difficult for the Jets to get to the net or get traffic in front of Price.
Maurice’s comments about watching the Canadiens execute against the Maple Leafs indicates he knew what they were going to do in the series but wasn’t creative enough to come up with a way to counter it. That’s alarming given he had nine days to prepare and has 22 years of experience behind the bench.
Jets May Need Drastic Changes to Reach Next Level
Although they advanced to the final eight, the Jets cannot possibly be happy with their season. The first-round sweep was an aberration, and after the high of upsetting the Oilers wore off, they reverted back to being the team that lost seven games in a row and 9 out of 10 from mid-April to early-May.
Despite that, Maurice claimed the Jets are a good team that is just coming into its prime. It’s certainly hard to see it that way.
The second round exposed many systemic flaws that have been left unaddressed for years: among them, a stubborn coach who is loathe to depart from the status quo, a too-often-subpar defence, forward combinations that consistently get caved in five-on-five, and an over-reliance on goaltending to bail them out.
Given the way they exited, the lack of fight they showed, and how drastically they were outplayed and out-coached, major personnel changes should not be off the table. The offseason should be very interesting.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.