WINNIPEG - This isn’t about shifting the focus, it’s about recognizing the significance of the situation.
And realizing just how quickly a series can turn on its head.
For all of the talk about Stanley Cup Playoffs experience going into this series between the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, it’s not just the run to the Western Conference Final in 2018 that provided fertile ground for learning.
Although the Jets hold a 2-0 series advantage over the heavily-favoured Oilers going into Sunday’s game, it wasn’t long ago they found themselves in an identical position.
Back in 2019, it was the Jets who dropped a pair of home games to the St. Louis Blues before winning the next two contests on the road to pull even, when many observers were ready to count them out.
While it’s true the Jets still ended up losing the series in six games, they know all about the desperation that can be shown by a team in an 0-2 hole and it’s something they can use in helping them raise their collective level when this series resumes.
The race to four wins rarely includes a straight line or a direct path to the next round.
“Early in my career, whenever you won a game in the playoffs it felt like you were going to win the Stanley Cup. Whenever you lost a game in playoffs, it was like the world was ending,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp, who set up Paul Stastny’s overtime winner in the 1-0 victory in Game 2. “Now, a little bit more level-headed. You’ve seen it in the playoffs before when we were against St. Louis, down 2-0 going to St. Louis. We still have a ways to go in the series.
“No one is popping champagne or anything like that. We’re still a focused group. We know a push is coming for sure.”
Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey agreed with Copp’s assessment of the value of perspective in these situations.
“That was the same for me as well. Definitely, I feel I would ride the roller-coaster a little bit more in the playoffs,” said Morrissey. “Obviously, we’re off to a great start here, and we’re going to have to deal with adversity and tough games at some point in time. I feel like we’re better equipped to handle that as a team (and) individually.
“It’s all about being even keel and coming to work the next day and staying ready to go again and working that much harder. Just having that relentless mindset of continuing to bring your game and never coming off it.”
That push from the Oilers will be coming, whether Dave Tippett has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl playing together, anchoring separate lines or a combo platter of both those things.
Taking a 2-0 series advantage provides the Jets with a bit of a safety net, but this isn’t a time for them to get cautious or tentative. They must be conscientious about the things that have led to this success, but they must remain unwavering in their pursuit.
The Oilers' risk profile is about to change, but the Jets can’t afford to follow suit or feed into that high-octane transition game with poor puck management. The Jets can’t sit back and let the Oilers dictate the style of play either, because that’s a recipe for disaster.
“In some ways at 2-0, the shift of focus, there's almost an advantage to the team that's down two,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It's not so much desperation, but you get into any playoff game there's the balance there, of trying to score goals and push that envelope and you want to be careful, you don't want to give things up. And that fear of giving something up lessens for the team that's down two.
“So they get to come and push harder. So I think there's the advantage that goes to them on that. And then you want to be careful... it's not a casualness, it's just you feel like now you have to protect the two wins and you come off it. We still think there's a bunch of places in our game that we can improve. We've been pretty good in a few areas. These are one-goal games, both of them. They're very, very close. Just be mentally prepared for that.”
The Jets have essentially executed their game plan to perfection through two games, thanks to an incredible buy-in as it relates to team defence, elite-level goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck and some opportunistic scoring against Mike Smith.
“It’s the commitment to the way we need to play,” said Copp. “There haven’t been too many, if any, times where there has been a hope play, or there’s been a lazy back check. It feels like everyone is really committed to what we’re trying to do. That’s really positive to see. If we’re going to win the series we have to continue to do that.
“At this time of year, it’s not a hard buy in. It’s the way we have to play.”
Ehlers will return to the lineup for Game 3 and will start on a line with Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
“Everyone goes through certain injuries at some point during a season. Mine just happened to be at the end of the regular season. I know where I'm at and I'm excited for playoff hockey,” said Ehlers. “You want to play. There's not one player in this league that doesn't want to be out there for these playoff games. So yes, I definitely wanted to play the first two games. But I'm also happy that I did get some extra time and the boys got two wins. My time has come. I'm ready to go.”
Ehlers missed the past 11 games with a shoulder injury and ditched the non-contact jersey for the morning skate on Friday.
Enduring a seven-game losing streak late in the season and dropping nine of the final 12 outings provided an XXL dose of adversity for the Jets, but in many ways it helped harden their collective spirit at a time when building up scar tissue is often a necessary step -- if not a full-on requirement.
“Obviously, it was a tough time, a pretty dark time for the group, that’s for sure. When you’re in a stretch like that, it takes a ton of effort and resilience and mental toughness to come out of it,” said Morrissey, who has done an excellent job in this series on the top pairing with Dylan DeMelo. “At that point and time, it felt like next to impossible to win a game. It just felt like we couldn’t buy a win and we were scratching and clawing to do so. But mentally, as a group, we really had to come together and sort of learn to have that resilience, that mental toughness that it takes in the playoffs, whether you’re up or down in a series or a game.”
The Jets gave up the first goal of this series, but got the equalizer shortly thereafter and haven’t trailed since.
But with a bounce here or there, the Jets could easily find themselves even in the series.
That’s not to diminish what they’ve done to this point, it’s a stark reminder that giving the Oilers a reason to build their own belief could have dire consequences.
“We’ve played two solid games as a group, been able to find a way to get two big wins on the road but there’s no celebrating amongst our group, that’s for sure. We know how talented those players are, how talented they are in their ability to score goals and make plays,” said Morrissey. “So there’s no time to let your foot off the gas or sort of think you have it figured out.
“We can look at a lot of the things we’ve done well and we should be a confident group in our ability to try to bring our best game but yeah, we still are focused on the task at hand and we’re going to have to be even sharper and better as the series goes on.”