Although, technically, these Winnipeg Jets share a past with the Atlanta Thrashers and not the first NHL team in Winnipeg, there is a rivalry history between the Oilers and Jets.
It pre-dates their NHL arrivals, too.
The Winnipeg-Edmonton rivalry can be traced back to the WHA days. There, the Jets were a powerhouse, winning three Avco Cups, including the last one awarded in 1979 when Winnipeg beat Edmonton 4-2 in the league final. Both teams were transitioned to the NHL the following season and while the Oilers were a few years out from the Wayne Gretzky-era dynasty, the original Jets only ever won two Stanley Cup Playoffs series. The Oilers, in fact, eliminated the Jets on six separate occasions.
Today, the modern Oilers have a different generational talent in Connor McDavid leading the way, and a pretty good supporting star in Leon Draisaitl, last year's league MVP. They'll come in as the favourites against the Jets, too, as Winnipeg sputtered down the stretch, nearly finished fourth instead of third, and were dominated by Edmonton all season.
The Jets made the Western Conference final just three years ago, but roster attrition followed and they haven't won a round since. The Oilers, meantime, seem to be trending in the opposite direction, with their best players coming of age and lining up for a breakthrough. But they haven't done it yet. The Oilers are coming off a tremendously disappointing 2020 playoffs when they were bounced in qualifying by Chicago. They've only won a single playoff round in McDavid's short career, which happened all the way back in 2017.
Something will give in this first round matchup. One team will move on and have some positive takeaways, while the other will be eliminated and face a summer of questions about how to get on track.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Oilers: 48.64 CF% (18th), 49.78 GF% (18th), .916 SV% (20th), 8.88 SH% (7th), 1.004 PDO (14th)
Jets: 48.21 CF% (21st), 51.90 GF% (15th), .924 SV% (6th), 8.56 SH% (9th), 1.010 PDO (9th)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Oilers: 27.6 PP% (1st), 82.5 PK% (9th), 3.27 GF/G (7th), 2.75 GA/G (12th)
Jets: 23.0 PP% (7th), 80.5 PK% (13th), 3.04 GF/G (12th), 2.71 GA/G (10th)
This was a very one-sided season series and McDavid carved up the Jets, scoring seven goals and 22 points in the nine matchups. The Jets never kept him off the board in a game -- heck, they never kept him to fewer than two points. They did keep Draisaitl pointless on two occasions, but he still managed to score seven goals and accumulate 12 points on the season.
That's all out the window now as things begin anew, but it is troubling that Connor Hellebuyck had a dreadful .877 save percentage against the Oilers this season. There is no path to the Jets pulling off an upset here if Hellebuyck is a clear step below Mike Smith at the other end -- Smith had a .936 save percentage against the Jets this season.
The fundamental mismatch here is that the Jets allowed the fifth-most high danger chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, more than any other playoff team. McDavid and Draisaitl will be able to exploit that all day, which forces Hellebuyck into tough situations he'll have to overcome.
In that sense, the Jets may have to turn this series into a track meet, because an advantage they have over the Oilers is their depth up front, when healthy. Adam Lowry is back in the lineup, which gives the Jets a big edge on line three and if Nikolaj Ehlers returns then suddenly the top two lines fill out nicely again with many types of different weapons.
Having that edge on paper is one thing, executing it is another. A wide-open series wouldn't be the path of choice -- shutting down the other side's top players would be. Pierre-Luc Dubois has only shown shades of the player he was in the bubble last season, when everyone learned what he was about in Columbus's upset over Toronto. In fact, he's playing on the wing now, next to centre Paul Stastny. Dubois has to recapture where he was a season ago to try and frustrate Edmonton's big stars.
And there is Mark Scheifele, whose injury in the bubble against Calgary last summer was a turning point towards the Jets' loss. He led Winnipeg in scoring this season and will be vital to the team having a shot in this series.
We don't need to spend much more time talking about McDavid and Draisaitl, but should point out the Oilers have the advantage on the blue line, where Darnell Nurse's big step up in Oscar Klefbom's absence was a major development for the Oilers. Tyson Barrie has brought the offensive capability Edmonton signed him for and Adam Larsson is as sturdy as ever. This has helped Smith to an incredible season -- the likes we haven't seen from him since 2012 when he led Arizona to the West final.
But for Edmonton, the problem could come with the bottom-six up front, the only area where they are clearly at a disadvantage. While McDavid and Draisaitl will be able to keep the Oilers around in a series that becomes all about offence, contributions from their bottom-six will be few and far between. Alex Chiasson scored four times against Winnipeg this season and, outside of him, Edmonton only got two other goals from forwards in the bottom-six.
Oilers X-Factor: Mike Smith
No need to galaxy brain this one. Smith had an amazing season, the kind of which 39-year-olds just don't have. He may get some top-five Vezina votes out of it. But you always have to wonder: how long can he keep it up for? We've been sort of wondering if a cold streak might inevitably come for Smith, who had regular season save percentages of .898 and .902 in 2018-19 and 2019-20 before posting .923 this season. But it hasn't happened yet. Now it can't happen because if the Oilers have to even entertain the thought of using Mikko Koskinen, the battle is probably already lost.
Jets X-Factor: Nikolaj Ehlers
Despite missing two of Winnipeg's nine games against the Oilers, Ehlers led them with three goals and eight points in the season series. He tied for the team lead in regular season goals even though he missed nine games to injury. And now Ehlers is tracking to return to the playoffs, eventually. With the way McDavid and Draisaitl are going, it is hard to see how anyone will stop them, let alone one of the more porous defences in the league. That means the Jets will have to find ways to score against Edmonton's improved team defence and Smith's apparent discovery of the fountain of youth. Ehlers was having a breakthrough season and needs to jump right back into that mode without delay, whenever he returns. And if he doesn't play in this series at all, the Jets will flat out have trouble keeping up to Edmonton's offence at the top of the lineup.