Manitoba·Analysis

Playoffs 101: A fair-weather fan's guide to post-season Winnipeg Jets hockey

What's all the fuss about Winnipeg? For the first time in more than two decades, the Jets are expected to be competitive in the playoffs.

Wondering what the fuss is all about? Here's why the 2018 playoffs are so important

The 2017-18 Jets may be the best club in Winnipeg's NHL history. It's certainly the strongest since 1984-85. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

If you're one of the obsessive weirdos whose emotional well-being hinges upon every nifty Nikolaj Ehlers pirouette or jarring Joe Morrow miscue, congratulations: You're a perfectly normal Winnipeg Jets fan.

You watch every game. You follow every play. You scroll through the real-time commentaries on Twitter. You read every silly story about the team, including this one.

But if you're a casual sort of Winnipeg Jets fan who doesn't have the time, inclination or emotional capacity to inhale every morsel of minutiae about this hockey team, you may be wondering why the rest of the city has gone bloody mad over the past few months.

The reason is simple: The Jets are actually on the verge of ... well, something in the upcoming post-season. Here's why you should care, or at least feign to care, about Winnipeg in the playoffs.

Why are these playoffs so bloody important?

Despite a pitiful performance against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, the Winnipeg Jets are not just strong this year, but may be the best team in the city's NHL history.

For the first time in more than two decades, the Jets are expected to be competitive in the playoffs, which means a shot at competing for the first Stanley Cup in the history of either the original NHL Jets or the franchise that moved here from Atlanta in 2011.

As of Friday afternoon, the Jets have the fourth-best record in NHL, with 47 wins against 20 losses in regulation time and 10 overtime or shootout losses, good for 104 points. Only the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins have better records at the moment.

The Jets also score more goals per game than all but two of the NHL's other 30 other teams, allow fewer goals than all but five, are more likely to score on the power play than all but three and manage to hold on to the puck as a group more often than their opponents when they're not killing penalties.

Much of this success can be attributed to a mix of talent that includes high-performing veterans like winger Blake Wheeler and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, maturing leaders like centre Mark Scheifele and goalie Connor Hellebuyck and a gifted trio of skilled young leaders in Ehlers, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.

Winnipeg Jets, seen here in Vancouver, have not been as strong on the road as they are at home, where they sport the league's best record. Hence the importance of home-ice advantage in the playoffs. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The last time Winnipeg had a team anywhere near as gifted was in 1985, when an original-Jets squad finished the regular season with 96 points and an NHL-record six 30-goal scorers: Dale Hawerchuk, Paul Maclean, Thomas Steen, Laurie Boschman, Brian Mullen and Doug Smail.

That club beat the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs, but lost hall-of-fame centre Hawerchuk, thanks to an infamous cross-check from the Flames' Jamie Macoun. Without their leading scorer, the Jets were swept in four straight games in the next round by the Edmonton Oilers, who went on to win the Stanley Cup that year.

In other words, it's been 33 years since a team named the Winnipeg Jets was considered among the league's elite. And right now, less separates the Jets from the Predators, Lightning or Bruins, in terms of skill, than separated the Jets from the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers during the wide-open, high-scoring 1980s.

Given that no Winnipeg team has ever made it past the second round of the playoffs, die-hard fans are justifiably excited by the club's prospects. But they're also a little concerned, given that this may be one of the last chances the Jets have to be competitive.

Wait, why is it so crucial the Jets win this year?

It might sound cruel, but just as the Jets have gelled into a team that wins a lot, a window is closing on the chemistry that allows this group of athletes to work so well together.

Team captain Wheeler, defensive ice-team leader Byfuglien and versatile centre Brian Little are in their 30s and can not be expected to compete at the same level for many more seasons.

More significantly, skilled young players such as Ehlers, Laine, Hellebuyck and defencemen Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba are about to earn huge salary increases. Given that there's a limit on what any NHL team can pay out in total salaries, the Jets will soon be forced to trade away some veterans or allow some young players to walk away, just to keep their salaries below the league-imposed cap.

While there are some younger and less expensive players waiting in the wings, there's no guarantee a slightly different version of the Winnipeg Jets will win as many games as this year's edition. Subtle changes can make a big difference; although last year's Jets were not all that different than this year's team, the Jets were decidedly sub-par. 

Does the rest of the regular season matter?

No, but also yes.

The five remaining games in the 2017-18 won't matter much in the Central Division standings, where the Jets are all but certain to finish second. Barring a minor miracle or disaster, Winnipeg is too far behind Nashville to catch the Predators for first place in the division and too far ahead of the Minnesota Wild to slip to third place.

The second-place finish will give the Jets home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That means the first two games of a best-of-seven series will be played in Winnipeg, along with a potential Game 5 and Game 7. 

This is a big deal, considering Winnipeg has the best home record in the NHL this year.

But in order to retain home-ice advantage in potential subsequent rounds of the playoffs, it is worth the team's while to keep winning.

While the Jets are highly unlikely to catch Nashville, it would be worth the team's while to continue to win in order to place higher at the end of the season than Las Vegas and San Jose — two Pacific Division teams the Jets could face in a potential third-round playoff series.

Ditto the value in finishing higher than eastern-conference teams such as Tampa and Boston, should the Jets achieve what was inconceivable a year ago — compete in the Stanley Cup final series.

As well, there is some value in continuing to win for the sake of momentum. If the Jets lose most of their final games, the vibe in the dressing room could be down as the team heads into the playoffs.

That said, Jets coach Paul Maurice is likely to rest many of his best players during some of the final regular-season games, just to ensure the team enters the playoffs healthy and ready to compete. 

Who will the Jets play in the first round?

Right now, the Minnesota Wild sit in third place in the Central Division, eight points behind the Jets and five ahead of the St. Louis Blues.

According to sportsclubstats.com, there's an 82.5 per cent chance the Wild will hold on to their position, even with the Blues enjoying a hot streak at the moment.

This would set up a first-round playoff series between Winnipeg and its closest geographic neighbour in the NHL. There is a natural rivalry, as fans from Winnipeg and Minneapolis-St. Paul are regular visitors to each others' arenas.

The Jets and Wild have played four times this season, with Winnipeg winning three games in the fall and losing one in January. But you can't read too much into that record, given that Minnesota's play has improved as the season has continued. 

In a straight-ahead matchup, the Jets have a statistical edge. But any team can beat any team in the NHL.

What about subsequent rounds?

If the Jets don't make it out of the first round, any talk of rounds 2-4 is academic. But if they do beat the Wild — or possibly Blues — the Jets may face their biggest test in the second round.

The Nashville Predators are likely to finish the regular season with the best record in the league and will be heavily favoured to win against their first-round matchup. The Preds won their season series vs. the Jets, which included recent games. They also are far more experienced in the playoffs, making it to the Cup final in 2017.

In other words, few NHL observers would pick Winnipeg over Nashville in a head-to-head, best-of-seven matchup. But if the Jets do make it out of the Central Division, they would have close to even odds of beating teams such as Vegas, Boston and Tampa Bay.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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