WINNIPEG -- Andrew Copp couldn’t help but chuckle when the question was posed to him during the final Zoom availability before jumping on a plane bound for Edmonton.
The Winnipeg Jets forward was asked what he might say to the growing chorus of observers suggesting his team might be a bit overmatched in the North Division playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers.
“I mean, I think you look at our team the way it's built, the kind of players that we have on our team, from the guys on the first line to the guys on the fourth line to the guys that are not even playing, I think we've got talent and heart and character and guys that play the right way up and down our lineup,” said Copp. “Just counting us out of the series is a little insulting to me.”
Copp wasn’t the only one sharing that sentiment.
“We know we are good enough to win. We know that if we play our best game we can beat anyone on any given night,” said Jets defenceman Neal Pionk. “Now that's a lot easier said than done, but there's a lot of inner belief that we can do it.”
Having that inner belief is an important step in the process, but ultimately it’s up to the Jets to show they can flip the script and produce some results.
The talk about the Oilers' downright dominance in the season series is warranted since they won seven of the nine games, including the final six (outscoring the Jets 21-7 during that span).
It comes to the surprise of no one that the Jets are embracing the role of underdog in this series. If the results of the head-to-head meetings weren't enough of a rallying cry, the late-season swoon that included seven consecutive losses (and nine in regulation during a 10-game span) merely cemented it.
Where the Jets were a relatively unknown contender in 2018 as they reached the Western Conference Final, they were considered to be a full-on Stanley Cup contender (if not favourite) in the 2019 playoffs.
Though much of that hype had cooled with the Jets limping toward the finish line, a first-round exit against the St. Louis Blues was still considered a major disappointment following the great expectations for the organization going into the season.
The Jets were a bubble team last season and lost in the qualifying round to the Calgary Flames, then struggled late in the campaign this season after battling for top spot in the North Division as late as mid-April.
Is the current edition of the Jets a contender, a pretender or something in between?
Playoff history has taught us that things don’t always unfold as one might expect and Jets winger Trevor Lewis has some personal experience he’ll try to lean on once the series begins Wednesday.
“(In) 2012 we were the eight-seed taking on the Presidents' Trophy (winning) Canucks, and it's all about that belief in playoffs, and I think we've got a strong belief in here,” said Lewis, who won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings. “We've got a group that we know can do it.”
One of the Jets' biggest reasons for optimism in this series is goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who has the ability to steal multiple games when he’s playing at his peak.
Hellebuyck was the busiest goalie in the NHL this season and he once again showed what high-end netminding can mean to a team.
Average goaltending isn’t going to be enough for the Jets, who will be looking for ways to solve Mike Smith -- who has done a good job of both stopping pucks and minimizing the effectiveness of the Jets’ forecheck to this point.
Hellebuyck welcomes the responsibility of being his team’s most important player going into this series, but he can’t do it alone.
When asked if Hellebuyck might end up being the great equalizer in this series, Copp expressed his faith in the goalie, but also took umbrage with the line of questioning to a certain degree.
“I think we got a lot of belief in him, for sure. I don't know if it's a great equalizer because I don't know if we feel like we're lacking other areas,” said Copp. “I think we got a lot of trust in him, we got a lot of trust in our defence, we got a lot of trust in our special teams, we got a lot of trust in our scoring ability. I don't know if he's necessarily an equalizer but could be a difference-maker.”
For the Jets to earn an upset, this will take a collective effort, with certain players needing to elevate their respective games -- especially with forwards Nikolaj Ehlers (suspected shoulder) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (who hasn’t skated with the team after taking a puck to the head in Friday’s regular-season finale) ruled out for Game 1.
The playoffs are a time when unsung heroes come out of the blue and deliver magical moments.
“It's what you dream about when you're a kid. There's that extra fire in everyone during the playoffs, and you're seeing it now with the playoffs starting with guys that don't score much are scoring big goals,” said Lewis. “It's what you need to win. You need not just your star players to score every night. You need the guys that don't usually score to step up and score those big goals, and I think that gives a team big boosts. It takes everyone to win.”
For every chance that gets cashed in, there is often a list of others that went unfulfilled.
Qualifying for the playoffs can be difficult enough, but finding a way to win 16 games is a monumental task.
That’s part of what makes the chase so special.
“We’ve learned some valuable lessons over the past three years in the playoffs. First and foremost, how delicate these opportunities are. They’re fleeting,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “You’re not guaranteed to have a crack at it every year.
“Now that you’ve found yourself in the top half of the league with a chance, you want to make the most of those opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily mean gripping your stick twice as hard, sometimes it means that you’ve got to really enjoy these moments and take them all in.”
There were plenty of examples of the Jets gripping their sticks too tight down the stretch, but on countless occasions, head coach Paul Maurice reiterated his belief that enduring that hardship might eventually provide a payoff for his group.
The moment of truth is about to arrive.