Unified, organized Jets have potential to end Canadian Cup drought

The Monday Night Hockey panel started off Take Your Pick with a great question on who is the best Canadian playoff team. Justin Williams, Luke Gazdic and Sam Cosentino all gave their thoughts and opinions on the matter.

WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets are the NHL’s stingiest team. 

The Winnipeg Jets are one of the NHL’s most offensively balanced teams. 

The Winnipeg Jets are arguably the NHL’s best-coached team. 

The Winnipeg Jets are unquestionably the hottest team going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

The Winnipeg Jets are a team.

Not to be quoting from the book of Pierre Dorion here, but that last one is the biggest reason to believe the Jets can get past the top-heavy Colorado Avalanche and into the second round and perhaps even do something no other team in Canada has in 31 years.

It’s not a stretch to think this team can finally bring the Cup back over the border because, even if we know the Jets don’t have the best player in this series (let alone in these playoffs), they have 20 players pulling in the same direction. 

They showed more than any other group down the stretch of the regular season that they’re a unified, organized wagon of a team, and that’s what wins in the playoffs.

“We play a great team game,” said Jets leading scorer Mark Scheifele after practice on Saturday. “We have a lot of great players, our depth is special. Obviously, we have a fantastic goalie, but we’re a team. That’s what it comes down to. You need everyone come playoff time. First line, fourth line, first D, sixth D; you need everyone to be battling and pushing each other to be better. That’s what we have, we have a great, cohesive group in here, and we play a good, solid team game. And that’s what we rely on.”

That was confirmed in what we mostly saw from the Jets from October through March, and it was officially rubber-stamped by an 8-0 run through April.

The results of late were almost as impressive as the process that achieved them, with the Jets firing on all cylinders—relying on all their players and playing to all their strengths to outscore their opposition 35-15.

You could say that’s all over now, with a new season about to begin. 

But the belief the Jets internally fostered in the process, paired with the sharpness of their all-around game and the depth they boasted, won’t just disappear. And it should present a challenge a team that finished only three points behind in the standings might not be able to overcome.

Not to downplay how formidable this Avalanche team is. We’re talking about the NHL’s second-highest scoring group, which is driven by a player many would argue is currently the best in the world. 

And whether he’s better than Connor McDavid or not, there’s no denying that Nathan MacKinnon has the same ability as McDavid to win a game on his own.

We like his chances of doing exactly that at least once in this series.

MacKinnon won’t necessarily have to do it more, especially if he gets the help Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar are capable of providing. An Avalanche team in possession of more depth — even with Jonathan Drouin ruled out of the series — than it’s being credited for will pitch in, too.

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But if that element of the Avalanche is being undersold, it has much to do with how it stacks up against that of the Jets.

They too have star scorers in Scheifele and Kyle Connor to match MacKinnon and Rantanen, and a Norris-worthy defenceman to match Makar in Josh Morrissey. They also have a second line driven by clutch veterans Nikolaj Ehlers, Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli, who combined for 84 goals and dominated their matchups this season. 

The Jets’ third line is arguably the best shutdown trio in the league, and their fourth line is made for hard, heavy playoff hockey and good enough to survive minutes against even the best of Colorado’s.

The Jets’ forward group, as a whole, is so strong and balanced that 19-goal scorer Cole Perfetti will be watching it play from the press box rather than contributing to it on the ice to start Sunday’s Game 1. 

From up there, he’ll see what we should all expect to see — a solid defensive core and a goaltender, in Connor Hellebuyck, who can manage the turbulence if the Jets come out wonkier than they appeared over their season-ending win streak. 

And what if Hellebuyck isn’t in the same fine form that will have him run away with the Vezina Trophy come June? The Jets could do much worse than having Laurent Brossoit step in. 

The 31-year-old posted a .927 save percentage in 23 appearances this season and showed to what extent he can be relied on.

But neither he nor Hellebuyck should have to steal this series away if the Jets continue to execute the exacting forecheck, punishing cycle and defensive commitment in front of them that saw the team post the best five-on-five differential in the league this season.

At times when they broke from their system, none of their top players — not Scheifele nor Connor nor Morrissey nor Hellebuyck — could keep them from being exposed. They appeared as disconnected over the seven-game skid that preceded their end-of-season winning streak as they did in flaking out of last year’s opening-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights in five games, and that was concerning.

But it proved to be a vital lesson.

The Jets adjusted immediately and, in the process, showed they understand what they have to do to win.

And now they’re coming into the post-season motivated, prepared to show they possess what they appeared to be lacking a year ago against Vegas.

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“They know they have something to prove,” said coach Rick Bowness after Saturday’s practice. “It didn’t sit well with them over the summer how we exited last season, so that’s a good thing. That was the message, really; it comes down to that—don’t go home and feel good about your season after the way we played in the playoffs, it wasn’t good enough. Even if we hadn’t lost that series, we had to play harder. 

“From the beginning of training camp, this has been a very committed group, and a tighter group, there’s no question. The guys we brought in have fit right in.”

Monahan, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a first-round pick in early February, has done more than just that.

He has balanced out the middle of the ice, bolstering the second line at five-on-five while simultaneously improving a power play that produced at just 15.7 per cent and ranked 24th out of 32 teams prior to his acquisition. 

Since the 29-year-old stepped into the bumper position on the first unit, the Jets have capitalized on 23.7 per cent of their power-play chances. That’s 14th-best in the league over that time, or three spots ahead of where the Avalanche has ranked since Feb. 2.

Toffoli, who was traded to Winnipeg on Mar. 9, has produced three of his seven goals with the Jets on the power play and helped Monahan’s line control 57 per cent of the shot attempts and 61 per cent of the expected goals at five-on-five.

Meanwhile, Adam Lowry, Nino Niederreiter and Mason Appleton have played more than 681 minutes of the most stifling third-line hockey imaginable this season, shutting down the league’s best players by owning a 57-per-cent share of the expected goals despite starting 64 per cent of their shifts outside of the offensive zone.

That Bowness can trot them out against MacKinnon’s line for four of seven games is a luxury home-ice advantage affords them. 

As is not starting this series in Colorado, where the Avalanche went 31-9-1 this season.

They can’t be underestimated in their own building, even if the Jets beat them 7-0 at altitude just eight days ago. 

The Avalanche can’t be underestimated at all.

We’re talking about a team that still has many of the same parts as it did when it won the 2022 Cup. They are a team with an excellent coach in Jared Bednar, a team led by a player who produced 51 goals and 140 points and emerged as the leading contender for this year’s Hart Trophy, a team that has the best all-around defenceman in the league on its blue line and a team that is being backstopped by the goaltender who earned the most wins in the league this season.

But Alexandar Georgiev only had one more win than Hellebuyck did, and his numbers in the other categories don’t come close to matching Hellebuyck’s. And the Avs, who finished so close by in the standings, didn’t appear to be on the same level as the Jets over the last month of the season—winning just three of eight games in April.

They are a great team, but it’s questionable they can play as well as a team as the Jets have this season.

What’s exciting is that we don’t have to wait much longer to find out.

“This is great,” said Bowness. “This is why we come into work in September — to get to here. You’ve got to enjoy this. It’s a long road, man, and you’ve got to enjoy it every day.”

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