WINNIPEG — How much rest is too much?
The answer to that question remains a bit of a mystery, much like the Winnipeg Jets’ second-round opponent, which will require a Game 7 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens to determine.
Now that the gas tanks have been refuelled after a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers that included three consecutive overtime games — including a triple-OT thriller ended by Kyle Connor in the clincher — the Jets admit to being a bit restless to get back into game action.
But the benefits of some additional time off still outweigh any possible downside of a semblance of rust creeping in.
“You want to make sure you don’t let any bad habits creep into your game throughout the practice. And then you’re kind of just waiting,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “We’re going to go wherever we’re told. It’s one of those things where sometimes you get a little anxious to get started. We all want to just keep playing. You try and stay sharp as best you can, try to stay as rested as you can, so that when the series starts we’re ready to go.”
The series’ start date actually became clear Saturday night with the Canadiens forcing another elimination game after surviving a third-period rally by the Maple Leafs to win in overtime — just like they did in Game 5.
Round 2 in the North Division begins Wednesday in Toronto if the Maple Leafs win and in Winnipeg if the Canadiens are victorious for a third consecutive game.
The Jets are going to stay off the ice Sunday after three consecutive days of practice.
Despite having to wait for more than a full week between games, the Jets won’t have trouble getting fired up for the next opponent.
“Calm but ready,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “There’s a timing to that and a peaking to that. So really important that we go about our business and cover our bases. First: you’ve got to probably fill the reserves, get rested, get ready, get right. That anticipation is coming. I think you can already feel it. Right now, it’s all details and tactics and trying to keep the legs right.
“And I think there’s confidence that we’ll be able to get to that emotional level. The longer that your break is, the more anticipation. We’re close to needing a game here soon.”
There are some obvious benefits for the Jets when it comes to the extended break, and at the top of that list is the opportunity to get back to full health.
Whether it’s the regular bumps and bruises that come up at this time of the year, or an extra week and change for speedy winger Nikolaj Ehlers to build up his strength and conditioning after missing the first two games of the first-round series with a suspected shoulder injury, the Jets will take it.
Ehlers made an immediate impact in his return to the Jets’ lineup, scoring twice, including the overtime winner in Game 3.
Fellow forward Pierre-Luc Dubois was sidelined the series opener with an undisclosed injury he suffered in the regular-season finale, but returned for Game 2 and finished with two assists in three games, with both points coming on the power play.
Dubois also made an important play on the Game 3 overtime winner that didn’t end up on the scoresheet, subtly holding up Oilers winger Josh Archibald off the draw and preventing him from being able to get his stick in the shooting lane before Ehlers unloaded his perfect shot.
The biggest boost for Dubois between series was the opportunity to participate in regular practice after what has been a tumultuous season that included a contract dispute, a fulfilled trade request, a 14-day quarantine, two injuries and a variety pack of linemates as he bounced between playing centre and both wings.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs and it hasn’t been the easiest year,” said Dubois. “I haven’t been injured in my life and this year there’s two. You can learn from everything. I still know my game isn’t necessarily where I know it can be and where it should be.
“I’m somebody who puts a lot of pressure on himself and has a lot of expectations, but you just keep working in practice. Now’s the time to get your game where you want it to be and when the second round starts, it’s a new game and that’s what I’m trying to work on right now.”
The Jets also employ the goalie who was kept the busiest this season in Connor Hellebuyck.
After leading the NHL in starts (45) and saves (1,223), Hellebuyck was at his best in the opening round, posting a perfect record while sporting a 1.60 goals-against average and .950 save percentage.
As much as Hellebuyck enjoys the rhythm of a regular schedule, the extra time between action will allow him to be fresher — which could come in especially handy as the Jets face games on consecutive days for a second round (Game 3 is slated for Sunday, with Game 4 following Monday).
Hellebuyck used Saturday to work individually with Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty and he’ll be up for the challenge of going head-to-head with either Jack Campbell or Carey Price.
No matter which team advances, the Jets know they’re in for a stiff test against a club that features plenty of depth.
“You look at Montreal and they seem to do it by committee,” said Lowry. “They don’t necessarily have one superstar up front or anything like that. They have a bunch of really good players. They’re small, they’re quick, they’re tenacious, they’re on the puck and they kind of do it through hard forechecking and throwing pucks to the net and creating scrums. They have a bit of a bigger back end.
“And then you look at Toronto and obviously Auston (Matthews) and Mitch (Marner). But they’ve got a little bit of extra depth, depending on what happens with (John) Tavares and how he heals. Obviously you look at how (William) Nylander’s played in the first round and you kind of go down their forward list and they have some depth, they have some scoring. They get contributions from all different lines. Both teams present different challenges. They attack slightly differently. They create their offence a little differently. But we’re focused on how we play and how our style of play is going to prevent those chances against, whether it’s against Toronto or Montreal.”
When you look at how the Jets disposed of the Oilers, there’s a quiet confidence surrounding this group as they find themselves in the second round for the first time since 2018.
“Going into it, there weren’t a whole lot of believers in our team, but even through our struggles down the stretch I don’t think the belief in our locker room ever really wavered,” said Lowry. “We’ve gone through this year and for the most part we were really strong bouncing back from losses, coming back and generally winning the next game. And you kind of go on that slide right near the end of the year and everyone’s trying to figure out: ‘What’s wrong with the Winnipeg Jets? Why are things not going right for them?’
“But in our locker room, we really believe in the group we have here. We have a world-class goalie who gives us a chance to win every night. I don’t know if you’re catching teams by surprise. Everyone’s kind of geared up to play. I think maybe Edmonton maybe was a little surprised at our commitment to defence and how tightly we were able to check some of them early in the series. But as you move on, every team is capable of winning every night. You’re going to get every team’s best every night and the better team’s going to come out on top.”
Whether the Jets remain an underdog against the Maple Leafs or a slight favourite against the Canadiens, their approach won’t change one bit.
The Jets know the style of play they’ll need to lean on once the next round begins.
The commitment to team defence, focusing on puck management and limiting turnovers, being disciplined and creating offence the right way remain high on the list of priorities.
“A guy like me that’s getting older, you never know when another chance is going to come up, so I’m very happy that we get a chance to play in the second round,” said Jets left winger Mathieu Perreault. “Now, it’s going to be down to eight teams and you can really cherish that and bring everything you have to that second round so you can keep moving forward.”