Three keys to victory in the Oilers-Jets Round 1 playoff series

There isn't much history between the current Winnipeg Jets franchise and Edmonton Oilers, but the Oilers dominated the old Jets franchise during the Wayne Gretzky era, and the two teams now have a chance to ignite a new Stanley Cup playoff rivalry.

The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers kick off their first-round series Wednesday in what has the potential to be a perfect storm for Hurricane McDavid to do some serious damage.

Connor McDavid torched the Jets for 22 points in nine games this season. Keeping McDavid off the scoresheet will be pretty much impossible. That’s not something the Jets can control. What they can at the very least attempt to control is how much damage McDavid does against them. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three keys to this series starting with the obvious.

Connor McDavid

McDavid is the key on both sides. For Edmonton, McDavid factored in on over half of all Oilers goals this season. Edmonton needs McDavid to produce offensively while also not being a liability defensively. Last season in the qualifying round against Chicago, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combined for eight goals and 15 points in just four games. The problem was they gave almost all of that production back, finishing with plus-1 ratings, respectively. McDavid’s all-around game has improved significantly and all signs point to a dominant effort forthcoming in the first round.

For the Jets, it feels like limiting McDavid to a point per game would be a win. McDavid’s 22 points in the season series were 10 more than anyone else. Peel the onion a few more layers and you’ll see that McDavid dominated just about every meaningful offensive category.

McDavid averaged just over three slot shots and slot pass completions per game against Winnipeg and nearly two rush chances. These are high-goal probability plays for any player let alone the most talented offensive player on the planet. There may not be a team in these playoffs less equipped to deal with a player like McDavid than the Jets and if the regular season was any indication, every night might be point night for the Oilers captain.

McDavid is going to score, and score often. There’s no getting around it. The level of play Edmonton will want to see is ‘win the game on his own' dominance. If the Jets can keep McDavid to ‘just really good,’ then they will have a chance to keep the goals against relatively low and allow their offence to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

Connor Hellebuyck

While Winnipeg ranked 10th in goals against this season it ranked 26th in expected goals against. What that tells us pretty clearly is goaltending covered up a lot of warts for this team.

Connor Hellebuyck had another outstanding season in goal for Winnipeg, ranking fifth in wins, 13th in save percentage, 10th in inner slot save percentage, and third in goals saved above expected.

The area of the game the Jets had the most trouble defending was off the rush, which is less than ideal going into a playoff series against the high-flying Oilers. Winnipeg ranked 28th in rush chances against, allowing just under seven per game. Hellebuyck’s numbers against the Oilers weren’t great this season -- a 2-5-0 record with an .877 save percentage -- however, the team in front of him shoulders more blame for his sub-.900 save percentage than he does.

The Jets allowed an average of 15 shots from the slot in their games against the Oilers. Some context, only the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks allowed more per game this season.

It’s an unfair ask, but Hellebuyck is going to have to steal a win or two in this series and play as well as he possibly can in every game. We all know the Vezina Trophy winner is capable of tilting a series on his own and he will likely have to for the Jets.

Rush vs. Cycle

In the season series, the Oilers dominated the transition game while the Jets held a significant advantage in terms of creating offence in-zone.

The team that can dictate its style of play will be the one with the best chance of winning the series. Led by McDavid, who unsurprisingly topped the NHL in rush chances and goals, the Oilers out-chanced the Jets 81-46 off the rush in the season series and outscored them 12-2.

The Oilers generated an average of 6.8 rush chances per game this season, which ranked eighth overall. They averaged nine per game against the Jets. If Winnipeg can’t slow McDavid and company down through the neutral zone this has the potential to be a short series.

As for the Jets, they’ve got a few burners of their own. Specifically, Nikolaj Ehlers is one of the best puck movers in the league. However, the key to success for Winnipeg will be to keep the Oilers hemmed in their end as much as possible, cycling the puck to create offence.

Winnipeg out-chanced Edmonton off the cycle 104-79 in the season series. The more Winnipeg can keep Edmonton chasing the puck in its end the better for a couple of reasons.

Number one: it keeps the Oilers from having the puck and there’s no better recipe for limiting the high-powered Edmonton attack than playing keep away. Number two: the Jets have depth on their side at the forward position. At full health, the Jets' third line can be a handful for skilled, top-six lines and they are more than capable of spending a good amount of time in the attacking end. The only Jets line that won the expected goal battle against McDavid’s line was the one centred by Adam Lowry with Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perrault on his wings.

As for the Jets' top line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Kyle Connor, it saw a steady diet of McDavid, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the season series. Winnipeg’s first line faced Edmonton’s for 14 and a half minutes at even-strength and while neither side scored in a fairly low event, head-to-head match-up, the ice was tilted in Edmonton’s favour.

Expect a few Connor vs. Connor one-on-one situations as McDavid and Hellebuyck will be the biggest factors for each team going into this series. Beyond that, we are looking at two different styles and whichever team can best impose its preferred method of creating offence in the series stands the best chance of coming out on top.

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