The Winnipeg Jets’ top line, for a couple of reasons, will have to be opportunistic if the team has any chance of triumphing in their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff matchup against the heavily-favoured Edmonton Oilers.
1: McDavid’s Going to Light it Up
The first reason is the immense talent of the Oilers’ — and the NHL’s — biggest star.
Connor McDavid torched the entire North Division this season, recording a ridiculous 105 points in 56 games. But he torched the Jets most of all, putting up seven goals and 15 assists for 22 points in nine contests.
“Containing” McDavid isn’t really something that can be done. Stopping him from showcasing his blistering speed and immeasurable skill for even a period or two is difficult, and doing so for an entire series is downright impossible.
The reality is he will likely record multiple points in every game in the series. All his games against the Jets this season were multi-point efforts, and with a three-assist night when the teams faced on April 28, he set a new NHL record for consecutive multi-point games against a single opponent.
The Jets’ top trio of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler will be in tough to keep pace with McDavid by himself — let alone when he’s alongside Leon Draisaitl.
But keep pace they must as one two goals a game won’t be nearly enough to win. The players the Jets pay the big bucks to light the lamp need to do so with regularity, because McDavid and Draisaitl sure will be.
2: Jets Can’t Deploy Top Line Against McDavid
The second reason is that the top line’s ice time shouldn’t be as high as usual.
The Connor/Scheifele/Wheeler combo has been caved in at five-on-five for years now. Proven to be too weak defensively, it shouldn’t be together at all, but head coach Paul Maurice is nothing if not insistent on keeping them together for the most part.
If Maurice has learned anything at all, though, he won’t trot them out against McDavid (although the McDavid/Scheifele matchup may be inevitable when the Oilers have last change.) It’s a complete mismatch, with Mark Scheifele in particular getting his lunch eaten all season long. Scheifele was a minus rating in seven out of nine games, and never a plus.
Maurice would be much better off deploying the defensively-sound third line of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry, and Mason Appleton whenever possible and complementing that line with the stingy-at-even-strength fourth line of Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson, and Trevor Lewis as needed.
On the back end, the Jets should force McDavid to deal with a heavy dose of Neal Pionk and Derek Forbort. The Minnesotan duo was the only pairing to have even limited success against him; Pionk especially was dogged on McDavid earlier in the season.
They’ll still be in tough, and probably still get scored on. But deploying those lines is still a better bet than throwing players out there who have proven they can’t get the job done.
Cashing in Will Be Key, and There’s Some Hope Top Trio Can Do Just That
Connor, Scheifele, and Wheeler are game-changing players, and they showed just how effective they can be against in the final two games of the season when they combined for an impressive 15 points.
After the line finally broke out in a 5-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks on May 11, Wheeler spoke about being snake-bitten during the awful stretch in April and early May where they lost nine out of 10 games and scored only 17 goals.
“You start to just feel like it’s never going to happen,” he said after recording a season-high four points. “I mean we even had a few in the first period that it looked from the bench like they were going in and hit a stick or hit a post or whatever it might be, it just kind of feels like it’s just never going to happen. So you’ve got to give the guys a lot of credit for keep pushing and just keep doing the right things and doing the same things, because ultimately when it comes playoff time it’s a lot harder to score goals. And that’s the way you score goals, you just keep doing the same things over and over again with that blind faith that you’re going to get rewarded for it.”
Their recent play will at least have them feeling good and ready to hit the ground running in Game 1 on Wednesday. Connor had four goals and six points in his final three games after a seven-game pointless drought. Scheifele is taking a five-game point streak (two goals and six assists) into the playoffs.
But their margin for error is slim. There can be no missing the net from high-danger areas. There can be no botched two-on-ones. There can be no power plays where they over-pass until they turn it over and are forced to retreat 180 feet.
MoneyPuck.com isn’t giving the Jets good odds, forecasting the Oilers as having 70 per cent chance of winning the series and predicting they’ll do so in five games. But if the Jets want to prove the betting site wrong, the big dogs need to eat whenever a juicy opportunity comes.
Declan Schroeder is a 27-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.