2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Minnesota Wild vs. Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets' Jacob Trouba (8) scores on Minnesota Wild goalie Alex Stalock (32). (Trevor Hagan/CP)

In what could be a new and budding geographic rivalry, the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild meet in the playoffs for the very first time.

The Jets are the no-doubt favourites in the series, but as one of the youngest teams in the NHL, there is a lot for them to prove. This is the second time Winnipeg has been to the playoffs since relocating from Atlanta, and they’re still searching for their first win.

The Wild, meanwhile, reached 99 points with most of the work coming in the second half. From Jan. 1 onwards Minnesota put together a 24-10-8 record, which is fifth-best in the league over that time and third-best in the Western Conference, behind Nashville and these Jets.

However, Minnesota’s pace since the trade deadline has slowed. While they elected to not make any substantial moves sitting fairly comfortably in a playoff spot, the Wild are 9-6-4 since Feb. 26, which is much closer to league average than they’ve played most of this season. On the other side, Winnipeg swung for the fences in acquiring centre Paul Stastny, who has found tremendous chemistry with Patrik Laine and Nik Ehlers in forming one of the most dynamic lines the past few months. The Jets are 14-4-1 since the trade deadline.

In terms of the head-to-head battle, it’s a bit difficult to get a read on how these teams align. While the Jets won the season series, their last meeting was way back on Jan. 13 and that was the only time these two played since Nov. 27. Much has changed in the NHL and with these teams since those first couple of months, so the two rivals will start this series relatively unfamiliar with the other side.

5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Winnipeg: 51.42 CF% (10th), 54.6 GF% (4th), .925 SP% (13th), 8.56 SH% (5th), 101.04 PDO (8th)

Minnesota: 47.17 CF% (29th), 52.19 GF% (12th), .927 SP% (10th), 8.03 SH% (10th), 100.77 PDO (9th)

Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

Minnesota 4.27 (21st) 5.73 (9th) 5 (18th)
Winnipeg 6 (9th) 6.02 (6th) 6.01 (7th)

Winnipeg: 23.3 PP% (5th), 81.7 PK% (7th), 269 GF (3rd), 215 GA (5th)

Minnesota: 20.5 PP% (18th), 81.1 PK% (13th), 244 GF (11th), 226 GA (11th)

Winnipeg: 3-1-0
Minnesota: 1-3-0

Winnipeg Jets Outlook: With seven NHL regular seasons behind them since landing in Winnipeg from Atlanta, the Jets have earned their second playoff appearance. And, unlike the 2015 team that was swept out of Round 1 by the Anaheim Ducks, this year’s edition of the Jets is an upper-echelon Stanley Cup contender made better by finally playing the role of buyer at the trade deadline.

One of only two Canadian teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Jets enter with the tag of the country’s best hope to win it all and break the 25-year-old curse. They are extremely deep and bolstered their forward units by acquiring Stastny on Feb. 26 to make a three-headed monster at centre with Bryan Little and Mark Scheifele — a key point of depth this late in the season. Laine and Ehlers, Stastny’s linemates, continue to shine as bright young stars in this lineup, but rookies Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic also added production when the Jets needed them.

The best story in Winnipeg and the No. 1 reason why this team has finally broken out, though, is 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck, who surprised by quickly becoming a horse. Hellebuyck posted a .923 save percentage and 2.38 GAA that stabilized a troubling position for the team last season and built himself a case to be at least a Vezina Trophy finalist.

The Jets are deep, talented, quick, big and young so they can play you hard in any part of the game. The only concern as far as their playoff hopes go is that the Central Division they have to play out of is full of talented teams. The Wild will test the Jets right away, but even if Winnipeg gets past Minnesota, the top-seeded Nashville Predators could be waiting for them in Round 2.

Minnesota Wild Outlook: Just as the New Jersey Devils aren’t the boring trap team of old, these Wild are far removed from the style employed for years by Jacques Lemaire. Three of their lines have offensive potential and, since Jan. 1, Minnesota is the eighth-highest scoring team in the league. Eric Staal is a fringe MVP candidate and has been scoring at a 50-goal pace the second half of the season. Zach Parise, who missed the first half with injury, is hitting his stride with 17 points in his last 21 games. Mikael Granlund is scoring at the same rate as last year’s breakout season, while Jason Zucker had his own career year.

But while the offence has mostly been a strength this season, their scoring chances and shot totals are low and have slowed further since the trade deadline. The Wild are 20th in shots since Feb. 26 and are running with one of the best shooting percentages in that time. They have to find a way to generate more chances, especially at 5-on-5, which will be a major challenge against the Jets.

The main area of concern right now is on the blue line, which may seem shocking given the Wild have allowed the sixth-fewest shots since the calendar flipped to 2018 and are 11th-best overall. But roles, minutes and pressure will be ramped up without Ryan Suter, who broke his ankle in the second-last weekend of the season. One of the elite minute-eaters and shutdown defenders in the NHL, Suter’s loss will put a greater spotlight on guys such as Mathew Dumba, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon, who is expected to return from a torn hamstring that’s kept him out of the lineup the past few weeks.

Jets X-Factor: There’s no question it’s Hellebuyck. Had the Jets gotten even average goaltending last season they may have been good enough to qualify for the playoffs, so the fact Hellebuyck was able to bounce back with such an outstanding performance is the No. 1 reason Winnipeg returned so strong in 2017-18.

Completely untested in the playoffs as a pro, Hellebuyck’s last experience in a post-season setting was when his No. 2-ranked UMass-Lowell lost to Thatcher Demko‘s Boston College team in the NCAA regional final before the Frozen Four. The season before that, Hellebuyck led the River Hawks to the Frozen Four, though they lost 3-2 to Yale in the semis.

Fast forward a few years and a few levels of competition, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are an entirely new test for Hellebuyck, who has managed the third-heaviest workload this season by facing 2,017 shots and playing 66 games. If he continues his excellence, the Jets will show up as the contenders they look to be. But if the pressure or fatigue weigh on him, it’ll be fatal to Winnipeg’s Cup hopes.

Wild X-Factor: Without Suter, extra pressure is on the rest of the Wild’s defence and the player facing the biggest increase in opportunity could be Dumba. The seventh overall pick in 2012, Dumba’s average time on ice has grown this season, from 22:44 between October and January to 24:47 per game from January to the end of the regular season.

With a 58.06 per cent GF%, Dumba was second to only Brodin on the Wild in terms of goals for/against split when he was on the ice, and he was the Wild defenceman given the most defensive zone starts.

Last season was the first in which Dumba received hefty post-season minutes as the Wild fell to the Blues in the opening round, but without Suter, his responsibility should be ratcheted up to another level.

Winnipeg: Blake Wheeler (23-67-90), Patrik Laine (44-25-69), Mark Scheifele (23-37-60)

Minnesota: Eric Staal (41-34-75), Mikael Granlund (20-46-66), Jason Zucker (31-31-62)

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