N ever mind a shot at redemption, it’s time for the Winnipeg Jets to stand up and be counted, to show what they’re really made of in what has basically been a tale of three seasons.
There was the wonderful start that included a record of 20-9-1 through 30 games, the often uneven and sometimes uninspired block of 20-plus games and then, as adversity arrived on their doorstep, the nice bounce back, finishing 7-4 and answering plenty of challenges.
Sure, as the Jets get set to open the 2023 Stanley Cup at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday night against the Vegas Golden Knights, the 2018 Western Conference final rematch serves as a natural storyline, but it’s nothing more than a footnote. Way too much has happened in the interim for there to be much in the area of spillover.
Would the Jets like to turn the tables in terms of the end result? Absolutely. They’ve clearly got something to prove as they enter this quest, but that’s got less to do with 2018 than with the way the playoffs have gone since.
Jobs are on the line and legacies have the potential to be enhanced or altered.
While it’s not a subject that any of the impacted players care to delve into until the season is over and the time is right, both the short- and long-range future of multiple core pieces with the potential to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024 will soon dominate headlines. That’s the nature of the business, especially when you’re dealing with a group that includes veteran winger Blake Wheeler, who has been here since 2011 and is the franchise leader in many different categories. Can Wheeler take a few more trips to the hot tub time machine and be a consistent point producer in these playoffs?
You’ve got Mark Scheifele, the first ever draft pick by the 2.0 version of the Jets, who rekindled his spark and eclipsed the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his career, finishing with 42 despite a late-season benching and a nine-game drought. Can Scheifele return to 2018 playoff form, where he delivered 14 goals and 20 points in 17 games?
You’ve got Connor Hellebuyck, the superhuman goalie who returned to Vezina-like levels and has the ability to put a team on his back when it matters most (more on him later).
And you’ve got Pierre-Luc Dubois, the man acquired in the blockbuster deal for a pair of homegrown first-rounders in Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic whose future remains very much up in the air. Can Dubois channel the 2021 bubble version of himself and get under the skin of his opponents, draw a bunch of penalties and contribute some clutch goals — like his overtime winner in Game 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round that completed his hat trick?
The roster churn on both sides of the ice has been significant since that last playoff loss to Vegas. The renewed cast of characters extends behind the bench, where veteran Rick Bowness is tasked with trying to take these Jets where they’ve never been before.
An experienced voice with five decades in professional hockey as both a player and coach, Bowness was brought in to help provide some structure and additional accountability. The primary goal in replacing Paul Maurice and interim head coach Dave Lowry was to see if some tactical adjustments and a new voice would be enough to reignite a group that hasn’t gone on an extended run since — you guessed it — 2018. Bowness has done his part on both those fronts, but not without encountering some rough air that resulted in plenty of bumpy flights for these Jets during a stretch where they slipped from the top spot in the Western Conference to the eighth and final seed, holding off late pushes from the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators.
But that’s the thing about the Stanley Cup playoffs: outside of home-ice advantage, being an eighth seed gets you most of the same perks as a top seed or anyone in between. It’s an opportunity to compete for hockey’s Holy Grail, and that should be all the motivation anyone needs at this stage of the season.
Bowness has ample experience both as an assistant and running his own bench in the playoffs, and those results with the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins include a record of 26-23 (.531). His most recent reps came last spring, when the eighth-seeded Stars pushed the top-seeded Calgary Flames to overtime of Game 7 in an opening-round series, often riding the red-hot goaltending of Jake Oettinger. Should this series go deep, one would suspect a similar formula to play out, with Hellebuyck playing the lead role against his one-time understudy, Laurent Brossoit.
“You know, it’s going to be fun. I’m close with LB. He’s still a good friend of mine. I know we’re going to talk about this for many years,” Hellebuyck told reporters in Winnipeg before the team departed for Las Vegas. “Everyone talks about experience. I have it now, you can say that. I don’t think I’m looking back at that year  and saying that I need to do anything differently.
“I’m just kind of taking what we have now and just going to continue working on my details that I think is going to give me the best chance to be the best me.”
Hellebuyck was 24 when he backstopped the Jets on that long run, an emerging talent who has blossomed into one of the best goalies on the planet. His overall body of postseason work is impressive, including a 2.46 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Although he did his part in 2018, Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was a brick wall after giving up four goals in Game 1, as the Jets scored just six times during the final four games.
Talk about not having much of a margin for error.
This time around, the Golden Knights clearly know what they’re up against. “Obviously he’s in the Vezina conversation. He’s one heck of a goaltender,” said defenceman Zach Whitecloud. “We’ll be making sure we get bodies in front and get to the interior and make his life as difficult as possible.”
As for Brossoit, he’s eager for this opportunity, which was one of the reasons he left the Jets and signed a two-year deal as a free agent in the summer of 2021.“I was trying to keep my head above water back then and just kind of try to stay in the league,” said Brossoit, who played three seasons with the Jets. “It’s nice to go through my experience in Winnipeg and it gave me my opportunity here. It wasn’t exactly how I’d written it up, but the longer the journey, the sweeter the fruit. I’m grateful for all of the failures I’ve had in the past to get here.”
Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy said Brossoit earned the nod with his stellar play down the stretch, which included a 7-0-3 record, a 2.17 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. “We’re hoping that LB takes the ball and runs with it. He’s played really well for us, so I don’t know why he wouldn’t,” said Cassidy. “Those are the guys that you root for, the hard-working guys who are true pros and [require] no maintenance. You hope they get their opportunity and here it is.”
On the health front, the Jets are hoping to have forward Nikolaj Ehlers available to start the series, while centre Kevin Stenlund (lower body) is questionable after suffering an injury in the final game of the regular season.
Given the way Ehlers performed down the stretch, as he found his skating legs after working his way back from sports hernia surgery, he has the ability to be a game-breaker in the series, both at even strength and on the power play.
Should Stenlund be unavailable, David Gustafsson draws onto the fourth line.
For the Golden Knights, Whitecloud (lower body) and captain Mark Stone (back) are tracking to return for Game 1, while goalie Logan Thompson (lower body) and forward William Carrier (concussion) will start the series on the sidelines (though Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy said Carrier has been skating on his own).
While the Jets enter with little external expectation to become the first Canadian team to capture the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did it in 1993, they’re also facing a Golden Knights squad that isn’t being given a whole lot of credit by many of the pundits as the postseason begins. Despite holding off a charge to go 22-4-5 down the stretch and finish first in the conference — after missing out on the playoffs last season — it’s usually not Vegas but rather the Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche and even the Stars that are being picked to come out of the West. The chip that may leave on Vegas’s should will ensure the Jets won’t be able to sneak up on the Golden Knights and catch them by surprise.
“I don’t think anyone in this locker room, two years ago, expected that we weren’t going to make the playoffs [in 2022]. That was kind of a shock to us,” said Golden Knights winger Reilly Smith, one of the original misfits from the inaugural season. “Obviously we went through a lot of injuries and a lot of other tribulations that made it a tough season for us. For some reason, a lot of people wrote us off, like we weren’t going to have a good season this year.
“We didn’t buy into any of that noise. We knew the kind of team we had. Last year was kind of a one-off. We weren’t happy about how the season turned out and we knew that wasn’t going to happen again.”
Since entering the NHL as an expansion team, the Golden Knights have been to the playoffs five times in six seasons, made it to the Western Conference final three times and lost to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup in 2018. They’ve got ample experience, plus the hunger of a first-time playoff participant like Jack Eichel, who has helped change the dynamic of this group since his arrival from Buffalo.
The Golden Knights are often referred to as the second most popular team in Manitoba, given all of the connections to the Keystone Province with captain Mark Stone (Winnipeg), Brett Howden (Oakbank), Keegan Kolesar (Winnipeg), and Whitecloud (Brandon) all on a roster put together by former Brandon Wheat Kings head coach, general manager and owner Kelly McCrimmon.
Back in 2018, Howden found himself in attendance for one of the playoff games and he’s excited to experience the White Out on the ice this time around. “It’s a little different than if it was a regular-season game. I find going to Winnipeg, it’s all about the guys are coming home and stuff like that, but to me, this just feels different,” said Howden, whose wife, Meike, recently gave birth to the couple’s first child, Charlie. “We’re not so worried about who we’re playing, we’re worried about us.
“In the end, yeah, it’s pretty cool that we’re playing Winnipeg and we get to get back and play in front of some family but like I said, it’s a little bit of a different feeling, more so worried about the team and what we’re doing together.”
What the Golden Knights hope to be doing at the end of this run is raising the Stanley Cup, but that’s the exact same goal the Jets are hoping to accomplish.
“We’ve earned the right to be here and the right to be in the playoffs. Sixteen teams are going home and getting ready for golf,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “If you’ve punched your ticket, you’ve got belief. There’s 16 teams that want to win the Stanley Cup, that think they can win the Stanley Cup. We feel we’ve got the depth, we’ve got the size, the skating, the ability up and down the lineup, so we’re just going to have to believe it.”
And so the drama begins, with multiple storylines already in place and others set to unfold with unexpected twists and turns as the series gets going.