WINNIPEG — That light at the end of this long, dark tunnel has officially passed the squinting stages and is well within reach for the Winnipeg Jets.
The regular-season finale has arrived with a mostly meaningless date — at least in terms of the standings or any jockeying for position — with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night.
No, that’s not to suggest the two sides will be going through the motions, but their 10th and final meeting isn’t going to have the same intensity as the previous contest.
This isn’t about sending a message to a potential playoff opponent in the North Division final, either.
There’s far too much at stake in the first round to be looking too far ahead, with the Jets and Edmonton Oilers opening up proceedings Thursday after the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens get going Wednesday.
“There’s nothing really on the line. The difference between our sport is that it’s a full-contact sport played very, very fast and emotion is a critical piece to our game,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Both coaches want the same thing. You want your team to play well and you keep your fingers crossed that nobody gets hurt. You can sit a guy out in a game and he can get hurt in practice. That’s the thing you’re fearing. All of these guys want to play these games. They want that good feeling.
“Get through it, get healthy and get moving forward.”
With just two wins in the past 11 games, the Jets realize there’s still work to be done to raise their collective game to another level.
“There’s definitely renewed excitement. We’ve got that energy in the group,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “We’re looking at this as a game where we need to prepare to get our game playoff ready and put a playoff game out there. In the playoffs, you can’t be taking penalties and putting yourself on the kill, especially in a game against Toronto here. But, obviously, (also) our first-round opponent, the Oilers. You put them on the power play, they’re pretty lethal with those players they have.
“One last sharpen of our game and be ready to go.”
Although there was some speculation Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck might skip the regular-season finale after posting a shutout in two of his final three starts, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner will get the call against the Maple Leafs and make his league-leading 45th appearance.
“He’s going to play. He wants the game. For him it’s all rhythm,” said Maurice. “To have played, then sit that many days out, it’s not what he wants to do. He wants to get into the game. We’ll monitor his workload a lot more closely than we would in a normal game. He wants to play and he wants to play the whole game. We’ll start with that.”
Jets forward Andrew Copp and defenceman Tucker Poolman will skip Saturday’s game, but are expected to be available for the start of the playoffs.
One of the biggest questions for the Jets heading into the post-season is the status of dynamic winger Nikolaj Ehlers, who will miss a ninth-consecutive game Friday with a suspected shoulder injury.
Having a few extra days before the opening-round series gets underway should help, but based on what Maurice had to say Thursday afternoon, Ehlers remains questionable for Game 1.
“He’s back skating with us now and he’s shooting some pucks. We’ll see where the next five or six days get us to,” said Maurice. “I can’t tell you he’s in for sure, and I certainly can’t tell you that he’s not playing in Game 1. We have to get those next five days through.”
This isn’t a matter of a coach being coy or wanting to keep the opponent guessing.
The value of Ehlers is undeniable and he wants to get back into action as quickly as possible.
On the flip side, if rushing back too soon puts him in danger of getting knocked out for a significant portion of time with one hit — that’s not worth the risk either.
After a five-goal eruption against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night, the Jets are feeling better about their offensive game (despite the drought of being limited to 17 goals in the 10 previous games).
One of the biggest developments coming out of that was the Jets first line of Blake Wheeler (two goals, four points), Kyle Connor (one goal, three points) and Mark Scheifele (one goal, two points) combining for four goals — all of which came at even strength.
Wheeler, who played through cracked ribs earlier this season, is up to 15 goals and 44 points in 49 games and has collected at least one point in seven of the past eight games.
Connor has put a seven-game goalless drought behind him and has scored in consecutive games, while Scheifele has put the memory of his benching in the rearview mirror.
Especially if Ehlers is not ready for Game 1, the top trio is going to need to be sharp — both in terms of production and also handling part of the responsibility of going up against Oilers stars Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl.
The other piece of the puzzle for the Jets is finding a way to lean on its forward depth to create an advantage in other parts of the matchup game.
Adam Lowry speaks with the media about the final game of the regular season, preparing for the playoffs, and more. pic.twitter.com/sYlwMAJ4lq
— Winnipeg Jets | #Stastny1000 (@NHLJets) May 13, 2021
With eight forwards already in double digits in goals — and two others sitting on nine going into Friday’s game — that’s an area Winnipeg could be looking to explore.
“Depth scoring in the playoffs, if you can get scoring from all four lines, the back end, that can be the difference in the series,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “Usually you look at kind of the top stars going head-to-head, and whether it’s kind of a saw-off, give or take a couple of goals, it’s the secondary scoring, those third and fourth lines that usually are the difference in a seven-games series.
“If we can have all these guys chipping in and we continue getting contributions from different spots in the lineup on different nights, it bodes well for our chances.”
Each of the playoffs teams in the North Division suffered through a crisis at some point of the season, and while the Jets were the last to do so, we’re about to find out if the lessons learned during the rough patch will either be a unifying force or a harbinger of things to come.
“Every day I feel like we’ve gotten better. You look at the last three or four games, the amount of chances we’ve given up and the kind of chances we’ve given up have gone down a lot,” said Lowry. “Earlier in the year we were really plagued by giving up a lot of rush chances. That’s something we have continually tried to work on. I think that’s all you can ask for is improvement over the course of the year. It’s just about cementing the things we’ve been working on and try and reinforce some of those good habits and good ideas that we have been getting better at over the course of the year, so we can hit the ground running when we get to Edmonton.
“Now the slate is wiped clean after the game (Friday) and we’re looking to really go into the playoffs feeling good about our game and giving us the best chance to win every night.”