Think of it as “chip-on-the-shoulder” hockey.
The Winnipeg Jets didn’t much care for it when conventional hockey wisdom – generally found in quantities on Toronto sports panels – dismissed their chances against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.
Following the Jets remarkable – no, stunning – four-game sweep of the Oilers, the final nail driven in triple overtime early Tuesday morning, a few of the Jets told reporters that they had felt deeply insulted by such dismissal.
“We just took it as a challenge,” defenceman Dylan DeMelo said, “and wanted to prove everybody wrong, that we could handle it. … We heard that outside noise and thought we could ruin some people’s playoff pools.”
Now the Jets await the outcome of the series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens to see which eastern Canadian team they will meet in the next round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Leafs lead the series 3-2, playing in Montreal on Saturday.
That means virtually a week off for the Jets, perhaps more if Montreal can tie the series. Having thought they’d be travelling Saturday, some of the players were delighted to hear they’d still be in town that day.
“We get to watch Champions League soccer on Saturday,” a happy Paul Stastny told reporters on Friday.
It will also allow them to watch the Leafs and Habs play in front of 2,500 fans Saturday evening, as this will mark the first return of fans to a Canadian arena since the pandemic lockdowns began.
“These are two of the most famous franchises in the NHL,” Stastny said. “It’s way more exciting to watch with fans than without fans.”
It will also mean a few extra days for conventional hockey wisdom to chat about Leafs sniper Auston Matthews or to argue about who is the superior goaltender, Montreal’s Carey Price or Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck.
Winnipeg is well used to being slapped about by other parts of Canada, especially the eastern centres. Sir John A. Macdonald’s tariffs, Depression-era bank closures, Louis Riel, the National Energy Program, the list goes on …
“We are the orphans of Confederation,” Winnipeg media mogul Izzy Asper once said, “and we resent it.”
It’s unfortunate that someone in charge of programming decided that the fourth game of the Edmonton-Winnipeg series should begin at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. That meant that perhaps a handful of viewers east of Thunder Bay were still watching when Kyle Connor scored on a partial breakaway at the 6:52 mark of the third overtime.
Had viewers taken in the entire four-game series, they would have seen a Jets team that never quit, never got down on itself or each other, a team that simply ground its way to success.
They would have seen in Hellebuyck gold-standard goaltending that underscored why he was last year’s winner of the Vézina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. As Sportsnet’s Ken Wiebe pointed out the other day, Hellebuyck had a shutout in Game 2. He stopped 151 of 159 shots on goal. He had a goals-against average of 1.60 and a stunning save percentage of .950.
The Jets’ defence corps, never heralded, were most effective against the flying Oilers of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, etc. DeMelo, acquired from the Ottawa Senators the previous season, emerged as a dependable NHL defender. Josh Morrissey is today legitimately a star, with four points in the series and ice time that set a franchise record of 41:54 in Game 4.
Head coach Paul Maurice reunited his top line of centre Mark Scheifele, Connor and team captain Blake Wheeler and they more than held their own against any Edmonton top line featuring McDavid or Draisaitl or, at times, both together. The three Jets combined for 14 points during the series.
There were plusses to be found throughout the Jets lineup. Stastny, a 35-year-old veteran who played his 1,000th NHL game this year, settled Game 2 with an overtime goal. Dominic Toninato, who at 27 has yet to reach 100 regular-season games, tipped in the goal that took Game 1. Contributions from all.
Not surprisingly, Maurice gave his charges some down time following the triple-overtime finale. The coach figured his team had played three games in two nights, given the number of periods played. In his 1,600-plus games coaching in the NHL, he had never heard of back-to-back games during the playoffs.
But this is 2021, where nothing is like it once was.
“It’s unique,” Maurice said Friday. “Today was the first day things felt back to normal.”
Coaches planned to work on grinding, puck-retrieval play over the next couple of days, gradually shifting to practices that emphasize speed. “We want to be as fast as we can be for Game 1,” Maurice said.
Earlier in the week, Maurice had said that both the Leafs and the Canadiens are “two really, really good teams,” but that was not to suggest they are equal or the same. “Different styles of hockey we’ll have to adjust to in the next round,” he said.
Friday was the first day since the opening-series win that the coaches brought video back into the room. But it was not to study the strengths and weaknesses of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens.
“Until we get an opponent,” Maurice said, “we will only look at Winnipeg Jets video.
“Once we finalize the team we’re going to play, we can get a bit more specific.”