Winnipeg Rolls Into Round Two

The Winnipeg Jets aren’t at the forefront of anyone’s radar in the race for the Stanley Cup. They have no playoff pedigree—the first-round win over the Minnesota Wild was the first in franchise history. They don’t have recognizable names and aren’t in a media hub—even if they were inside the U.S., that area on the border of Minnesota and the Dakotas where they sit, isn’t exactly a media hotbed. Winnipeg will be an underdog to the Nashville Predators when the second round of the playoffs opens later this week.

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But don’t overlook the Jets. In the playoff preview posted here a couple weeks ago, it was noted that Winnipeg is the only team in the NHL to finish in the top five in both goals scored and goals against. Their power play work, both offensively and defensively, was in the top ten. They have a balanced offense and a goaltender good enough to win a Stanley Cup with.

Patrik Laine doesn’t have the name recognition of an Alex Ovechkin, but Laine’s 44 goals during the regular season were the second-most in the NHL. Kyle Connor’s name isn’t casually dropped with Connor McDavid’s when it comes to the best young players in the sport, but Connor scored 31 goals. Winnipeg’s offensive depth didn’t get the same publicity as Tampa Bay’s, during the season, but the Jets produced six players with at least 20 goals.

That balance was on display during the five-game dispatching of Minnesota.  It was Mark Schiefele who got the biggest goals of the series in the clutch Game 4 road win that put a stranglehold on the series. Dustin Byfuglien, the defenseman who facilitates so much offensive activity was tied for leading point producer in the series solely on his five assists.

What was most impressive about Winnipeg though was the way they opened the series and the way they closed it. Generating shots on goal is this team’s one weakness—they were only 15th in the league during the regular season. But you wouldn’t have known it the way they assualted poor Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. Winnipeg hit him with 40 shots in Game 1 and 44 more in Game 2 (for those that don’t follow hockey until the playoffs, 30 is a good baseline number to use for shots on goal). In Game 5, the Jets beat Dubnyk with four goals on ten shots in the first period alone, en route to a 5-0 rout.

At goalie, Connor Hellebuyck posted a 92.4% save rate during the regular season (92.0 is a good baseline here and clearing that by 0.4% is statistically significant). Hellebuyck hit 92.4 on the nose in the five games against the Wild. More important was his play in clutch situations, where he delivered consecutive shutouts to close the series after Minnesota’s Game 3 win had put some pressure on.

I won’t go as far as some local Winnipeg announcers did in Game 5, when they dropped Hellebuyck’s name in with Martin Brodeur and Dominic Hasek. Hey, before we mention him with all-time greats, let’s at least see Connor get to the conference finals. But there’s no question that at a time of year that can belong to a hot goalie, the Jets have one capable of carrying them.

Winnipeg’s odds of winning the Cup are 11-2. That places them fourth among the 10 teams still alive. But they’ll likely slip to fifth if Boston can close out their first-round series with Toronto either tonight or Wednesday. The Jets could also fall behind the Washington Capitals in the eyes of the smart money, should the Caps do the same. Winnipeg will be an underdog to Nashville in the coming Division Finals and would surely be a dog to the Vegas Golden Knights if that’s the Western Conference Finals matchup.

But I’m high on these Jets and anticipate a terrific series with the Preds in our immediate future. And I’ll go out on the modest limb and say that the franchise that waited eighteen years for its playoff series win will only have to wait another couple weeks for its second.