The Winnipeg Jets, who have been off for nine long days since their unlikely sweep of the highly-favoured Edmonton Oilers, will finally hit the ice again tomorrow night against the Montreal Canadiens for Game 1 of the second-round series.
Here, we’ll highlight three Jets’ X-factors who must rise to the occasion if the team wants to advance to the third round for the second time in franchise history.
1: Pierre-Luc Dubois
The Jets are still waiting for the man acquired in exchange for Patrik Laine to truly showcase his play-driving skill.
It was an up-and-down regular season for the 22-year-old, as he showed spates of superb play but was inconsistent and often invisible. A lengthy quarantine and two injuries didn’t help matters, but the statute of limitations on those excuses have long since expired.
The bottom line is this: it’s June now, not January, and the Jets need Dubois to step and and be the player who lit it up in the Edmonton bubble last summer, posting four goals and six assists in 10 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
There’s signs Dubois will finally meet the expectations held for him in Round 2. After missing Game 1 of the Oilers’ series due to an injury suffered in the final game of the regular season, he returned and chipped in two power play assists in the monumental Game 3 third-period comeback.
Dubois has been honest with the fact he hasn’t played as well as he could since arriving in Winnipeg. Assessing his Round 1 performance, he said “Game 2, for me personally, was just O.K. Game 3, I thought I had a better game and Game 4 was OK also.” (from ‘Waiting for Dubois to dominate,’ Winnipeg Free Press, May 28, 2021.)
Centering a line with the highly-productive and high-octane Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers could be just what Dubois needs to be much more than “just OK” against his home province’s team.
2: Connor Hellebuyck
The reigning-Vezina winner was outstanding in four starts against the Oilers, out-duelling the similarly-impressive Mike Smith.
While the Jets as a whole tried their best to play a stifling style in the first round — and the defensive core was mostly sturdy — Hellebucyk’s contributions to the sweep cannot be overstated. The NHL’s busiest netminder posted some eye-popping numbers, with a 1.50 GAA, .950 SV%, one shutout, and only eight goals allowed.
As goes Hellebuyck, so go the Jets. They’ll need more of the same from the big-bodied netminder going forward, because they will certainly will have breakdowns throughout the series.
“Our confidence is directly tied to him,” Blake Wheeler said after Hellebuyck made 32 saves in Game 1, the day of Hellebuyck’s 28th birthday. “The way he carries himself gives us confidence every single night. We know that goaltending means a lot this time of year and we have we believe the best goaltender in the league. That gives us a ton of confidence.”
Hellebuyck was fairly successful against the Canadiens this season, posting a 6-3-0 record with a 2.67 GAA, .916 SV%, and one shutout. But the Canadiens will be feeling great —but certainly not rested — after coming back from down 3-1 in their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and sending their hapless-in-elimination-games rival home early once again.
The Canadiens present a stiff challenge given they have scoring threats all throughout their lineup such as Josh Anderson, Joel Armia, Brendan Gallagher, and Tyler Toffoli. Hellebuyck will have to be ever-alert.
3: Josh Morrissey
Josh Morrissey’s first-round performance was the best he’s played since Jacob Trouba was his partner.
Paired with Dylan DeMelo, Morrissey’s positioning and reads were excellent, his puck-moving skills helped the team break out cleanly from their own zone more often than not, and he logged heavy minutes against Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, holding them in check for the most part. Morrissey and DeMelo never shied away, taking the assignment as a challenge, DeMelo said.
Morrissey not only played a big role in containing the NHL’s two preeminent points producers, but did so while producing offence, notching a goal and three assists.
He was amazing all over the ice, and a difference maker in every area. Super confident, his skating was excellent, and his stick was really good,” DeMelo said of Morrissey last week. “He ended a lot of plays and blocked a lot of shots. (He’s) a leader on the back end and a leader on our team… happy to be a partner with him and maybe help him a little bit, but I think in his own right he did an awesome job.”
Morrissey said that, on an individual level, every player wants the opportunity to play as much as they can and that he “certainly” relishes that opportunity himself.
In the second round, Morrissey should see plenty more opportunity and will once again be tasked with limiting the Canadiens top guns (but unless multiple games go to overtime like they did in the first round versus the Oilers, he won’t skate an average of 29:57 again!)
Nonetheless, the Jets will rely heavily on their premier defenceman and he must be up to the assignment again.
Who else do you think has the potential to be an X-factor for the Jets in the series versus the Habs? Comment below!
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.