ST. LOUIS – The Winnipeg Jets can’t afford to look ahead while facing elimination tonight against the St. Louis Blues. But if they peered out at the Stanley Cup playoffs, they’d see one of the most-wide open tournaments since the National Hockey League expanded from six teams.
With the top-seeded Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning already turfed from the playoffs – they combined for 112 wins in the regular season, then went 1-8 in the post-season – the Stanley Cup is there for anyone to claim.
"That’s the fool’s gold," Jets coach Paul Maurice said after Saturday morning’s skate. "This isn’t going to get any easier. There’s the idea that if you win 62 games (like Tampa did), you’re feeling like you’re in a place to go on a long run. But there’s a lot of division leaders that are in a tight series or lost them."
The Jets were second in the Central Division to the Nashville Predators, tied with the Blues at 99 points. But the home team has yet to win a game in this series and after the Blues rallied from a two-goal, third-period deficit to win 3-2 in Thursday’s Game 5, the Jets are on the verge of elimination.
In NHL history, the road team has never won the first six games of a playoff series.
"This is a different series, isn’t it?" Maurice said. "If you couldn’t find the result, if you never got to see the puck crossing the line, it’s just too even. It doesn’t feel like it matters on our bench, here or on the road. The road team doesn’t have an advantage. It’s not: ‘Hey, great, we get to go back to St. Louis so it’s guaranteed win night because it’s on the road.’ There’s none of that. These are all one-shot games, and both teams know it."
One of the key tactical changes made this series was St. Louis coach Craig Berube’s decision to mix his top two lines after the first period of Game 5. Brayden Schenn was moved from first-line wing to second-line centre, where long-standing chemistry with Jaden Schwartz paid off with the first playoff goal for each.
Experienced buzzsaw David Perron moved up to the first line, where he helped energize Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly.
St. Louis will start Game 6 with those line combinations.
"Sometimes it gives them a spark, you know?" Berube told reporters Saturday morning. "I think it gave us a little more energy and a spark there, putting Brayden in the middle. He hasn’t been there in a while. He was excited about it. I thought that line was really good."
Maurice said the Jets are at "a different place" than they were a year ago after last season’s 17-game playoff run to the conference final.
Winnipeg players are rallying around their Game 7 victory in Nashville in last year’s second round, which followed a shocking 4-0 loss in Game 6 at home when the Jets had a chance to close out the series.
"We remember we were up 3-2 on Nashville and we went home and laid an egg," Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey said. "There is a lot of pressure on the home team. You want to close it out and you don’t want to have to go back and play a Game 7 on the road. We know what the Blues are feeling, or we have an idea. We know the situation. If we win tonight, we would put ourselves in a really good situation, going home for Game 7. You can’t look too far ahead, but we know they’re going to feel some pressure and hopefully, we can use that to our advantage."
Veteran Blue Tyler Bozak on playoff upsets and the unpredictable race for the Cup: "I think that’s the coolest part about the NHL; every team that’s in the playoffs can beat every team and I think that makes for a really entertaining and competitive playoff. I’m sure the fans love it. As a player, you know if you get in the playoffs, you have a chance."