Heed the wise words of Philosopher Paul. That would be Paul Maurice, head coach of the Winnipeg Jets, as he’s known in the hockey world.
In reviewing Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in his first lecture on what will be the first-ever series between his Jets and the Montreal Canadiens, Maurice talked about two teams who took the same path to this destination -- albeit through different roads and on different timelines, with Winnipeg demolishing Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers in a four-game sweep and the Canadiens doing the same to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven.
“They played a very similar game to what we played against Edmonton,” Maurice said. “We took down the one and two scorers, they took down the four and five scorers. They played a real committed, team game and they were really hard to play against.”
And so we asked Maurice what the difference would be between two teams with like-minded approaches to playoff hockey, and that’s when he hit us with the truth about what always makes the difference.
He broke it down like Socrates -- deconstructing it before putting it all back together.
“It won't be which team is better,” Maurice said. “When we put the teams on paper, when we line them up and decide who's got more offence or who's got more defence, it won't be that. We have maybe a similar mindset, but we have different players. So, in those different players, we can be good at a bunch of things and Montreal can be good at a bunch of things, and they may not be the same things. But whatever team is as good as they possibly can be at the things that they are good at, I think wins.
“So, we're a different team than the Edmonton Oilers. We weren't a better offensive team than they were in that series, but I think for the style of game that we can play… we were good at what we could do. We were maybe better at what the Winnipeg Jets are better at than necessarily the Edmonton Oilers were better at what the Edmonton Oilers are good at… Sum it up: the team that can be truer to itself, to be closer to who they are, will have the best chance of winning.”
Think about what you saw from both these teams in the opening round, after both of them were counted out by most before it even got underway. They obliterated the preconceived notions established during the regular season by doing exactly what Maurice said.
The results shouldn’t have surprised anyone, because when the adrenaline and the will to win redline and the whistles get pocketed, the truth is always revealed. Every player on every team may tell you they have a tight room -- a group of guys willing to do anything for each other, a group completely committed to its style and its plan -- but playoff games provide the proof.
We have two galvanized and committed teams meeting each other here, so when the puck drops on Wednesday to kick this battle between the Canadiens and Jets off, we expect to see exactly what former Canadien and current Jet Nate Thompson does.
“A pretty good series,” he said on Tuesday. “I think you look at their four lines, their D, it's all a little bit of a different style. You have some big bodies up front, you have some big bodies on the back end, you have some speed up front, you have some speed on the back end, and then you have a really good goalie backstopping them there. They've done a tremendous job of rounding out that team into a complete team with every style of game they can play. And yeah, I think you look at our team and it's pretty similar. I think we have a lot of the same attributes and it should be a really good series. I mean, there's probably not going to be a lot of room out there and guys are going to be fighting for every inch of ice and it should be a lot of fun and we're looking forward to it.”
Us, too. We’re looking forward to what could be a goaltender’s duel for the ages between Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Montreal’s Carey Price, to the high-octane Jets offence facing off against the hardnosed Canadiens defence, and we can’t wait to see which depth players emerge as difference makers.
But this will ultimately come down to which team is best able to stick to its identity while piercing its opponent’s.
“I think that’s always the challenge when you move from one round to the other,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “You’re playing a team that just won a playoff series, so they feel good about themselves, they feel good about the way they played and that’s why from one round to the other, from Game 1 to Game 7, you always to keep improving and getting better at what you do and creating a way to build a rhythm and momentum throughout the round.”
It’s also about how you react when that rhythm gets broken and momentum swings away from you.
“That’s what playoff hockey’s all about,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “Both teams are going to have a game plan, everyone’s going to be stuck to that game plan for a while and then when it gets tough and there’s pressure and you want to score and you want to make a big play, who gets away from their game plan? That’s what playoff hockey’s all about and that’s where you start to see bad turnovers or what have you and mistakes.”
Take the stats from the regular season and the games these teams play against each other and you can draw certain conclusions about tactics and tendencies. Look up and down the lineups and you can circle the key players who can tilt the series either way.
But as Maurice said, whichever team is most capable of playing to its strengths will be the one standing at the end of it.