It seemed so far-fetched at the start of the season: the Winnipeg Jets making the playoffs. Their first postseason appearance since moving to Manitoba, in the loaded Western Conference?
Unlikely. Sure, the farm system was stocked pretty well and yeah, the big league club had shown flashes in the 2013-14 campaign, but consistency was hardly their strong suit. Who would provide secondary scoring and – maybe more importantly – who would keep pucks out of their own net?
Well, here we are. Seven games remain in Winnipeg’s regular season, and a trip to the playoffs isn’t just possible – it’s probable. Extremely probable, in fact. The goaltending has been better than advertised and, other than a prolonged slump at the end of January, the Jets haven’t dropped more than two in a row since the first week of play.
Secondary scoring has emerged, first in the form of Mathieu Perreault, then Mark Scheifele and now even Drew Stafford. Their depth has been tested numerous times along the blue line, and they haven’t faltered. In fact, now they have a back end anchored by two of the biggest defensemen in the game today, Tyler Myers and Dustin Byfuglien.
Myers has revitalized his career since joining the club in February, and Byfuglien just might be the most important piece of all. In 66 games, he’s delivered 16 goals and 27 assists, bouncing around to wherever Paul Maurice has needed him and dishing out 118 penalty minutes worth of punishment to opponents. There was talk he could be a potential sleeper candidate for Hart Trophy consideration for awhile there, and his return from injury on March 26 immediately coincided with a goal and a big win over the surging Montreal Canadiens.
Of course, “big” is the operative word when discussing Byfuglien. Yes, the stats are nice – especially from a D-man. But his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame – coupled with the fact that he knows how to throw it around on the ice – make him a matchup nightmare. There’s not really anyone else like him in the league, and now Winnipeg gets to inject him back into the lineup at the most pivotal time of year. Not only that, the Jets already occupy a wild card spot at the moment. They don’t need to stage a furious rally, they just need to hold serve over the final two weeks. So here’s a look at the remaining obstacles in front of them.
March 29: vs Chicago
This is the sort of matchup that should worry teams, but Maurice’s group is 3-0-1 against the Blackhawks so far this season. And Patrick Kane was on the ice for all four of those contests, a luxury Chicago doesn’t have anymore. Let’s not get crazy here: facing Buffalo would obviously be a much more desirable option than squaring off with an angry ‘Hawks team. But Winnipeg won’t be intimidated by Chicago’s resume. They match up well with the perennial Cup contenders, and a win could even put them in striking distance of third in the Central.
March 31: vs New York (R)
There’s no way to make a matchup with the Rangers seem fun right now. They’ve gone 16-3-2 in their last 21, they have the best record in hockey and they’re about to get Henrik Lundqvist back. Plus, Rick Nash is due to start scoring again at some point too. The Jets did shut New York out in their only other meeting this season though, with Ondrej Pavelec earning the 1-0 victory in the shootout. He’s been the hot goalie of late, so he’ll likely get the nod in this one anyway. And even if Winnipeg were to fall here, at least it’s against an Eastern Conference team.
April 4: vs Vancouver
The final home game before a week-long road trip could be extremely pivotal for both clubs. If the Jets (and Wild) keep winning, it’s likely both wild cards in the West will come from the Central. That means Vancouver, Los Angeles and Calgary are essentially fighting for second and third in the Pacific. If Winnipeg slips up at all though, this becomes a chance to shove a fellow wild card contender down. The Jets are 0-1-1 against the Canucks so far this year, though Byfuglien and Bryan Little both missed the second meeting.
April 6: at Minnesota
There’s nothing easy about facing Devan Dubnyk and the Wild right now, but the reward for winning this one could be huge. Both teams currently appear playoff-bound, but whoever emerges from this tilt should have the inside track to a wild card spot at the very least. The teams have split the first four meetings this season, with three of the contests going to overtime and all four decided by a goal.
April 7: at St. Louis
Tough to catch the Blues in the second half of a back-to-back – especially in their building. Winnipeg is 1-2-1 against Vladimir Tarasenko and Co. so far this season, but they did win the most recent showdown.
April 9: at Colorado
The third road game in four nights though, again, the Jets don’t necessarily need to win out – they just need to grab points wherever they can. Despite a late-season surge, there’s a decent chance the Avs will already be eliminated by this point. That doesn’t mean they’re just going to roll over for their Central rivals, but it does mean Winnipeg should probably be playing with more of a sense of urgency than their opponent here.
April 11: vs Calgary
It’s not inconceivable that this game could decide everything. The Flames – much like the Jets, actually – simply refuse to go away. And while the Kings are making their fairly predictable push into a top-three spot in the Pacific, Calgary may have to go the wild card route to cap off their magical season. If Winnipeg stumbles down the stretch, all eyes could be on this game on the final day of the NHL’s regular season. Oddly enough, the Jets are 0-2 against the Flames so far in 2014-15, getting outscored 9-3. Probably better off taking care of business before this one.