WINNIPEG — The Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise has yet to win its first playoff game. So it is presumptuous for any of the Jets to look ahead to what would be a wildly entertaining second-round series against the Nashville Predators this spring, when they haven’t even been in Round 1 for three years.
But we’d be happy to look past whoever the Round 1 opponent turns out to be, after a 5-4 shootout victory for Winnipeg put an exclamation point on just how wicked a Jets-Predators series would be.
Because, oh boy! What a series that would be.
“It would be fast. They are a fast team,” said Jets defenceman Tyler Myers.
“Two of the top teams in the league,” added Nashville defenceman Ryan Ellis. “They’re a high-flying team. We think we’re a high-flying team, too. One team seems to score and the other one comes right back.”
In a five-game regular season series won 3-2 by Nashville, the two clubs combined for 42 goals. So in a 3-2 league, these two clubs play 4-4 hockey.
The last time they met here in Winnipeg, Nashville squeaked out a 6-5 thriller. This time, Juuse Saros was forced to be stellar in the Preds’ net, as the Jets outshot Nashville 47-36.
“I can’t explain it,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, whose team has a five-point bulge on Winnipeg in the Central, with seven games each to play. “Both teams have good goaltending. Both teams play pretty good defence. But offence seems to rule the day.”
Could it be like this in early May?
“I think playoffs is a lot different, to be honest with you,” said defenceman Mattias Ekholm. “But who knows. It’s most likely going to be the same players. I won’t expect anything much different.
“But I know on our part, we’re going to tighten up defensively for sure.”
On a night where the Jets officially clinched the playoffs for only the second time since moving to Winnipeg seven seasons ago, this one seems to have some sticking power. The Jets are big, young, fast and have goaltending — the recipe for a club that could do some damage this spring.
“Everyone’s been patiently waiting for this group to live up our expectations,” said Bryan Little, the versatile, terminally under-rated Jets forward. “We have a lot of good young players that everyone was patient with, and it’s starting to pay off. We’ve got a lot of talented guys in here, and a good group of guys. It’s really exciting.”
On a three-point night for Kyle Connor, the former Michigan Wolverine scored his 29th to tie injured Canuck Brock Boeser for the goal-scoring lead among rookies. He’s creeping onto some Calder Trophy ballots with a late charge that included back-to-back overtime winners in the Jets’ two previous games.
Patrik Laine failed to add to his goal count of 43, going pointless for his third straight game. And still, the Jets have won five in a row, and are getting plenty of offence with Laine being held off the scoresheet.
“Really proud of our group,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, whose 65th assist Sunday leaves him tied atop the NHL with Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux. “A lot of uncertainty coming into the year, where we were going to be. I don’t think many people thought we were going to be where we are at, a playoff team. Every single guy in here has had a huge part in that. It’s a big moment for our team and for our organization.”
We have but two playoff teams in Canada this spring, and this one is as wildly exciting as the other in Toronto. Neither will be picked to come out of their conference, but we all know what Las Vegas odds are worth, considering the bookies had the Edmonton Oilers as Stanley Cup favourites when the season began.
“You look at what Nashville did last year,” Wheeler pointed out. “They came in playing well … and were a game or two from winning it all. This doesn’t ensure anyone’s going to win the whole thing, no matter who looks the best on paper going into it. But as a player all you can ask for is a chance.
“And we have a chance.”
A darned good one, you’d have to say.