EDMONTON – Ready or not, the bright lights are set to shine down and we’re about to find out once again what these Winnipeg Jets are made of.
For all of the turbulent times the Jets have survived over the course of an adversity-filled season, the time to stand up and be counted has arrived.
Training camp 2.0 is in the rearview mirror, the lone exhibition game has been played and a best-of-five series with the Calgary Flames begins at Rogers Arena on Saturday night.
“There’s an excitement here to be back to work. You’re not carrying 70, 80 games on you so there’s a real enthusiasm for this,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “For the hockey – and it’s pure hockey, right? So there’s nobody in the stands, we get that. It’s certainly an unusual environment but the puck still drops and everything else is the same after that. The game’s the same.
“Now the part that we all look forward to is going to happen, so I think you’re going to see – I’m here to see — just fantastic hockey.”
It’s been said numerous times, but this is a series that has an awful lot of intrigue surrounding it.
There is little doubt about the potential for a fantastic matchup between two evenly matched teams with something to prove – both to themselves and to others.
These are two clubs that were bounced from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the opening round last spring, when great expectations turned quickly into utter disappointment.
The Flames have openly spoken about the importance of atoning for those poor playoff performances and it’s easy to applaud them for their willingness to meet those demons head-on.
The Jets aren’t shying away from past experience either, whether it’s discussing a run to the Western Conference final in 2018 or the pain of the six-game series defeat to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
But the overriding feeling is that the circumstances surrounding the pause in the season make for a more level playing field than in years’ past – and it’s currently impossible to truly tell how big a factor experience is going to ultimately be.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to deal with adversity,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who has 16 goals and 26 points in 27 career playoff games. “All it takes is a split second to get open and that can change the series, that can change a game. All it takes is a split second to beat a guy and get a chance on net.
“So, you have to be sharp all game, no matter if the game’s going well, no matter if the game’s going poorly, you have to be ready for anything in the playoffs. Those are the guys that succeed and excel in those tight situations. And that’s what I’ve learned in every single game I’ve played in.”
Both of these teams are built to win now, with experienced captains who have been around the block in Blake Wheeler (who turns 34 on Saturday) and Mark Giordano (36).
The core groups are easy to identify, though one could argue there are a few more questions surrounding the Flames top guns when it comes to playoff performance.
Part of the beauty of the playoffs is the unpredictable nature of them. Players develop at different rates and some guys take a bit longer to be comfortable on the big stage.
Jets sniper Patrik Laine has never been bothered by the glare of the spotlight, he’s embraced it fully.
“I don’t know, I think it’s always been natural to me. Whenever there’s a lot of pressure I feel like that’s when I’m most comfortable,” said Laine. “(Saturday) is going to be one of those big stages where I’ve always had great performances and hopefully, I’m going to have that this year too.”
There’s an extra element of fun for Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, as he prepares to meet his hometown team.
“I grew up a Flames fan, grew up going to the games, and all my family and friends were Flames fans as well. Definitely I’ll take some ribbing,” said Morrissey. “It’s just a cool experience. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to be playing in Winnipeg and Calgary, that would have been a cool experience. But this is a cool experience, too. At the same time, I hope I can come out on the winning side of it and probably not get bugged as much.”
There are some obvious differences apparent regarding where each organization stands in relation to its window to win.
The Jets gave Maurice a multi-year contract extension earlier this season, so another early exit won’t bring about a coaching change in Winnipeg.
On the flip side, unlike Dean Evason with the Minnesota Wild, Geoff Ward hasn’t seen the interim label removed yet, so there’s definitely some pressure on him regarding his future as this series begins.
As for the big storylines going into the series, the availability of forward Nikolaj Ehlers remains a pertinent question, though most signs point to him being ready to go for Game 1 despite leaving Wednesday’s exhibition tilt against the Vancouver Canucks during the third period with an apparent lower-body injury.
Maurice was adamant after Wednesday’s game that Ehlers’ departure was precautionary and no cause for concern.
On Friday, the Jets head coach was playful during his exchange with reporters, merely offering up a “sure” when asked if he still expected Ehlers to be a full participant in the final full practice before the series begins.
Ward told reporters he’s decided who will get the call in goal for Game 1 – though he wasn’t ready to reveal it yet, citing the fact he hadn’t spoken to his goalies about the situation yet (as of early Friday afternoon).
The truth is that it doesn’t really matter to the Jets who the Flames have in goal, these playoffs are about trying to take the next step.
They’ve picked up some battle scars during the past two playoff appearances and it’s time to see if they can apply some of the valuable lessons they learned.
The big prize is 19 wins away for both the Jets and the Flames.
Does either one of those teams have what it takes to reach the top of the mountain?
It won’t take much longer to find out.