The Minnesota Wild have drawn the Winnipeg Jets in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is a match-up that should excite the State of Hockey, given that Winnipeg-Minnesota is a potential rivalry that’s been mostly untapped since the Jets moved from Atlanta to Canada.
The post-season is where rivalries are truly born, and we should expect to see an intense match-up between these two teams. But who should we expect to win? Here’s my best case for a Winnipeg series victory. If you’re upset by this, rest assured that we’ll make a case for a Minnesota victory tomorrow. Enjoy???
Flying High at Home
The atmosphere in Winnipeg’s MTS Center is normally raucous, filled to the brim with passionate fans. That’s only going to intense with the higher stakes of the playoffs, and no team has taken more advantage of their home-ice than the Jets.
Winnipeg has a league-leading 32 wins at home this season, becoming only the 5th team in the NHL to win 32 home games since the 2004-05 lockout. And unluckily for MInnesota, it’s the Jets who have home-ice advantage, meaning Minnesota will need to steal a game in Winnipeg to even have a chance to win.
This is, bad, bad news for Minnesota. They’ve won just 7 of 21 road games vs. playoff teams this season, and none of those 7 wins came against Central Division opponents. If Winnipeg’s home dominance and the Wild road woes continue, this season is over before it even begins.
Wheeler Keeps on Rolling
Patrik Laine and the young stars the Jets have (and we’ll get to those guys soon) get all the attention. And hey, they’re great, they’re exciting, they deserve it.
But living in the shadow of Laine’s god-awful mustache is 6’5” Blake Wheeler, who is enjoying his best season ever.
Wheeler was Winnipeg’s MVP this season, leading the team in points (91) and shots on goal (246). He’s an elite playmaker of a power forward, racking up 68 assists on the year. And he’s especially lethal on the power play, where he racked up a league-leading 28 assists at 5-on-4 play this year. If Minnesota starts heading to the box this postseason, Wheeler is going to be the guy who will make the Wild pay.
And if that’s not enough, Wheeler is also a Wild killer. In the last three years, Wheeler has victimized the Wild for 7 goals and 18 points. The only player to have more points against the Wild in that time is Tyler Seguin.
Oh, and Everyone Else, Too
There truly may not be any team in the league with a more impressive Under-25 group than Winnipeg.
Mark Schiefele, 24, has 84 goals and 203 points in his last 3 seasons (210 games), and is both a gifted shooter and playmaker.
Connor Hellebuyck, 24, has emerged as the Jets’ starter, racking up a .924 save percentage over 64 starts this season.
Jacob Trouba, 23, is the Jets’ best defenseman outside of Dustin Byfuglien. He skates with the puck well in transition, and loves to shoot.
Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, 21, have a combined 60 goals and 117 points this season. Both are extraordinarily fast and shifty.
Of course, there’s Patrik Laine, 19, who has 80 goals since he entered the league, second to only Alex Ovechkin (82). Laine has Ovechkin’s deadly accuracy from the slot.
Jack Roslovic, 21, has a half-point per game playing 12 minutes a night. Adam Lowry (24), Joel Armia (24), Andrew Copp (23) are all excelling in Winnipeg’s bottom-six. Josh Morrissey (22) is playing 20 minutes a night on the Wild’s blue line while writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl from Luxembourg.
That’s a scary amount of talent that Winnipeg possesses. At that point, does the lack of playoff experience the Jets have really matter? Remember, youthful Toronto almost knocked out the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals last season. And if you might recall, the last time the Wild faced a young, speedy, inexperienced team in the playoffs, things didn’t go so smoothly.
Speaking of that Wild-Avalanche series...
Stast from the Past
...Paul Stastny teamed up with Nathan Mackinnon to wreck havoc against the Wild that series, scoring 5 goals and 10 points in 7 games.
Since then, the Wild have seen Stastny in 7 games, where he’s been quieter, scoring just 2 goals.
For whatever reason, Stastny just never clicked with the Blues the way he did with the Avalanche. But when he was traded to Winnipeg in an attempt to boost the Jets’ center depth at the deadline, Stastny found himself to be a better fit.
Stastny has 13 points in 19 games since the trade, mostly skating alongside Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine. That line has out-scored opponents 16-7 at 5-on-5 play. If that line keeps doing its thing, the Wild may have to re-live the experience of being unable to stop Stastny and his large adult sons.
Lingering Leg Injuries
No matter the health status of the Wild, the Jets would be a tough match-up for them. Even if you put the Wild in bubble-wrap at the beginning of the season and took them out of the box Wednesday, they’d still be the underdogs.
Still, the injuries Minnesota has suffered are a pretty massive blow. And it’s not just Ryan Suter’s devastating fibula/ankle break. Jared Spurgeon is looking to return for Game 1 after a hamstring tear. It’s very likely that he’ll be playing at less than 100% capacity.
Furthermore, two key contributors for the Wild haven’t been nearly the same since they suffered fibula breaks. Nino Niederreiter scored 10 goals in 28 games (nearly a 30-goal pace over 82 games) before breaking his fibula in December. Since making his full-time return to the lineup, he’s scored just 5 in 32. Charlie Coyle broke his fibula 3 games into the season, and hasn’t looked quite himself since. He scored just 37 points in 66 games after his breakout year where he scored 56.
Without the Wild’s Top-Pair intact, and with crucial middle-six pieces hampered, it’s hard to see Minnesota be able to counter Winnipeg.
In general, the Jets are a complete juggernaut who can hurt you with any of their forward lines, and have a couple of dangerous defensemen, as well. Their youth and speed is a nightmarish matchup for a team that is much older and slower up front. Throw in the Wild’s road issues, and you have the perfect conditions for a Jets series victory.