Barring any further COVID-19-related scheduling delays, the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are slated to begin in the Scotia North Division in another four weeks or so.
But starting tomorrow night and continuing for the next seven days, Winnipeg Jets fans can anticipate getting a sneak peak of what to expect come mid-May.
The Jets host Toronto on Thursday and Saturday before following up with a pair of home games against Edmonton on Monday and Wednesday of next week. And going into tonight’s action there is just a five-point gap separating the three teams in the chase for first place in the North.
“All of these now are potential first round opponents so you’re constantly measuring. Trying to find out what they’re trying to do to expose your game. What you’re trying to do to them,” said Head Coach Paul Maurice during his daily zoom chat with the media following Wednesday’s practice at Bell MTS Place.
And Maurice is expecting that Toronto’s recent run of injuries to Zach Hyman and Zach Bogosian in Vancouver earlier this week will result in the Leafs debuting at least some of their trading deadline additions for these next two games. “They’re going to have new people in the lineup. We’ve shifted our lines around. The teams on the ice will change a little bit in the last finish of the regular season. That’ll have an impact on how the teams will look.”
But Jets center Paul Stastny feels the playoff preview and race for first place storylines need to take second billing to what is far more important to him and his team mates. “For us it’s bouncing back after the last game we had and kind of establishing trying to be more dominant on home ice,” pointed out the 35 year old pivot on Wednesday afternoon. “We were on the road and did pretty good, and obviously your road record is important- but you gotta be good at home too.”
Winnipeg’s 16 road wins lead the NHL. But the Jets have not matched that standard at home with an 11-7-2 overall mark, dragged down by a 2-3-1 record over the last half dozen games played in downtown Winnipeg.
For his part, Stastny would prefer to avoid getting caught up in the pre-series hype surrounding the battle for top spot, focusing instead on getting their playoff game in gear. And he expects both teams will have something to prove in Thursday Night’s opener with Toronto looking to end an 0-3-2 winless skid and his own team in redemption mode after “laying an egg” in last Saturday’s 3-0 home loss to the Oilers.
“We know we’re going to get the best out of them. We’ll be ready to go, but I continue to harp on it- for us it’s more about building our game and knowing what works and knowing what you can trust out of your team mates come playoff time,” said the veteran of 990 career NHL games.
“There are parts of our game that are really good, and then there are parts in our game you can probably get away with in the regular season that we’ll have to change at playoff time. Those are kinda like the polishing we gotta figure out as players and as a team.”
One area that probably won’t need a great deal of “spiffing up” will be the penalty killing unit. Despite surrendering two powerplay goals for the first time since January 26 in Saturday’s loss, the Jets still feel pretty good about that part of their game which is 50/59 (84,7%) over the last 20 games.
“We’ve got a good unit. A lot of guys have killed penalties for a long time and know their role,” pointed out forward Trevor Lewis when asked for his take on what has made the Jets a successful team in what head coach Paul Maurice feels will be a critical element in the post season.
“I think it starts with being good on the faceoffs. You kill a good 15 seconds by getting a win and getting the pucks out,” said the former LA King right winger. “Everyone is in lanes, blocking shots. Obviously it helps when Bucky’s back there making big saves too.”
Winnipeg is ranked 12th in the NHL on shorthanded faceoffs at 47.2%, and are 11th in blocked shots with 623 in 45 games. And Lewis knows those numbers will be put to the test with a full diet of Matthews, Marner, McDavid and Draisaitl over these next four games.
“There’s definitely guys you kinda want to pay attention to – limit their time and space a little bit more than others. Trying to force them into a spot where they’re not as comfortable as they would be from the top of the circles, walking into a one-timer or something like that.”
Winnipeg has some work to do against Edmonton who are 6/23 in the season series with the extra skater. But the old “if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it” mentality might apply in the Toronto matchup where the Jets have killed off 17 consecutive Leaf powerplays since allowing goals on the first 2 chances of the series.
And defenceman Dylan DeMelo also feels the first four day break between games since early February will also have a big impact on his team’s performance over these next four games. “I think you look at our last game against Edmonton. We’re coming off quite a few games at and they have a week off. That game was right there for us, but we definitely had some tired legs and it was pretty evident they they were pretty fresh,” explained DeMelo. “No excuse obviously, but I think that’s just the truth of the matter, so hopefully we can use our freshness to our advantage.”
And Demelo is expecting the Jets to need a little extra fuel in the tank for what he predicts will be a high intensity playoff atmosphere type game against Toronto on Thursday. “They came in here and beat us two in a row when we played them about a month or so ago. We went in there and beat them on a tough back to back.
They’ve been really good games and really intense. A team we might see going forward here in the playoffs. It’s a big game — a good measuring stick for us. They’re easy games to get up for.”
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