The crystal ball is often a little bit cloudy when the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway, since chaos occasionally reigns supreme.
After watching the Winnipeg Jets endure a serious swoon near the end of the regular season, many observers are predicting another early exit in the opening-round matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, which gets underway on Wednesday.
Sure, the Jets were able to finish off the regular season with consecutive wins (and three in the final five games) after a head-scratching seven-game losing skid — which represented the longest streak since the franchise relocated from Atlanta in 2011 — and nine losses in a 10-game span.
Can those good feelings the Jets generated in the final few games of the campaign be enough to propel them to four victories in a seven-game series over an Oilers team that has won six consecutive head-to-head meetings and won seven of nine during the regular season?
Or will they be the equivalent of empty calories? It’s impossible to know for sure until the puck is dropped.
What we know is that the Oilers have given the Jets all kinds of difficulty this season.
We know that adjustments must be made in terms of both the game plan and especially the execution, even if Jets captain Blake Wheeler wasn’t interested in providing any hints when the subject was tabled on Sunday afternoon.
“There’s no secret they’ve had some success against us, we’ve had a tough time but that’s in the past. To answer your question, what adjustments do we need to make, I’m certainly not going to tell you any adjustments we’re going to make,” said Wheeler.
“I think that there are some areas we can definitely be better and I mean, we’re going to give it our all, see what happens. Seven-game series, we’ll see how it shakes out.”
Part of the beauty of the Stanley Cup playoffs is that history has shown that it’s wise to expect the unexpected.
The Oilers have the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl and they also have the 2020-21 most valuable player in Connor McDavid.
The dynamic duo has feasted on the Jets this season, with McDavid delivering 22 points in nine multi-point outings, while Draisaitl added 12 points for good measure.
Trying to contain those two players is at the top of the Jets’ list of priorities for the series, but it’s a monumental task.
“Obviously, they’re two amazing players. They had just phenomenal seasons. They’re a huge part of the Edmonton Oilers,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey.
“We’re excited to have the opportunity to go in and try to play our best. I think we’re going to need to bring our best game. We’re focused as a group, as a team, trying to bring our best game. I think we made a lot of strides as a five-man unit, including our goaltender, in our defensive game the last few weeks.
“So we’re going to have to be at our best in order to play well against this team that’s very dangerous off the rush. I’m excited individually to get back to playoff hockey here. It’s the best time of the year.”
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck has the ability to be the great equalizer in this series.
Nobody has been busier this season, with Hellebuyck facing and stopping the most shots as he made a league-high 45 starts.
Things haven’t gone smoothly for Hellebuyck against the Oilers this season, going 2-5 with a 3.96 goals-against average and .877 save percentage in seven games.
Don’t expect Hellebuyck to spend any time worrying about those numbers and don’t think for a second he’s not embracing this opportunity with open arms.
He’s not the least bit intimidated either or concerned about the Oilers being the heavy favourite in the eyes of many.
Hellebuyck got a taste of playoff success in 2018 and he wants to experience that once again as he pursues the Stanley Cup.
“Honestly, it’s all that I think about. It’s all I’ve got left to go for. Being with this group of guys, the way that we’ve grown together the last couple of years, there’s no better team that I would want to celebrate this with,” said Hellebuyck.
“I try not to look at all of that stuff, but if you want to call us an underdog, go ahead. We’ll use that as energy. Any little advantage that we can get right now, we’re going to take. That’s what it takes in the playoffs.”
Not only does Hellebuyck exude confidence, but he also supplies an abundance of belief to his teammates.
“He gives us a chance every night. That’s kind of been our M.O. here that last handful of years; regardless of how bad we could throw a stinker out there, we’ve got a chance with 37 in the net,” said Wheeler.
“So that’s where our confidence starts. He’s a very confident guy in his game and he gives us a ton of confidence back there.”
The Jets have some question marks when it comes to health going into the series opener as well, with forwards Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois absent from Sunday’s workout after leaving Friday’s game early.
Andrew Copp and Nikolaj Ehlers took part in non-contact jerseys and showed signs of progress, though they’ll be closely monitored over the coming days before being declared in or out.
In a series that figures to be filled with speed, getting Ehlers back would provide an obvious boost.
“He’s one of the most dynamic players in the NHL, certainly playing against some dynamic players in Edmonton. Yeah, he’s a big part of the pulse of our team,” said Wheeler.
“He gives us a shot of energy every night, especially in the playoffs where goals are tougher to come by to have a guy that can kind of create offence every shift and make things happen out of nothing.
“(Ehlers) is a big part of what we do, so we’ve definitely missed him. Whenever that time comes, we look forward to getting him back.”
With eight forwards hitting double digits in goals — including a rejuvenated Kyle Connor (who scored four goals in his final three games after going through a seven-game drought) — the Jets must find matchups to manipulate and try to gain an edge in the depth department.
One of the other things the Jets figure to lean on in this series is their wide array of post-season experience — ranging from reaching the Western Conference final in 2018 to the early exits to the St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames that followed.
“It matters to an extent. We’ve learned some valuable lessons over the past three years in the playoffs — first and foremost, how delicate these opportunities are. They’re fleeting,” said Wheeler.
“You’re not guaranteed to have a crack at it every year. Now that you’ve found yourself in the top half of the league with a chance, you want to make the most of those opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily mean gripping your stick twice as hard, sometimes it means that you’ve got to really enjoy these moments and take them all in.”
What valuable lessons will the Jets specifically be looking to learn from?
“We’ve had lots of opportunities over the years to take on a team that’s got a lot of firepower,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
“I think the biggest thing experience tells you is you have to enjoy this, you have to be excited about playing these games. I know that sounds obvious to a lot of people, why wouldn’t you enjoy it?
“You can’t go in tight. You have to go in excited and relish it. It’s been a tough year and a half for everybody in the National Hockey League and the payoff is you get to play playoff hockey. It’s not a play-in, it’s not a bubble, it’s as close to normal as we can possibly get. We worked hard to earn that spot in the post-season. We want to make sure we give it our best shot.”
I was fortunate to be able to accurately predict three of the four playoff teams in the North Division, the glaring omission being the Oilers.
The biggest miss was having the Flames finishing in top spot rather than missing the playoffs entirely.
The series prediction
Both of these teams have some playoff demons to overcome and it will be interesting to see if the weight of expectations has an impact on either the Oilers or the Jets.
McDavid is playing at a ridiculous level and is highly motivated to go on a long run after producing a season for the ages (33 goals and 105 points in 56 games).
Oilers goalie Mike Smith is the wild card.
He enjoyed ample success against Winnipeg this season, limiting them to nine goals in five meetings (4-0 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .936 save percentage) while creating all kinds of problems for the Jets forecheck with his puck-handling ability.
“He’s obviously very skilled at playing the puck. He’s got a great ability to knock pucks down, even sometimes when most goalies would stay in the net,” said Morrissey. “When it’s on the glass or when you can get a slap shot on it, most goalies have a hard time handling that. But I’ve played against him enough over the years to know he can knock that stuff down.
“It’s important to have good dumps and try to pressure his outs. He can make some pretty great plays back there, so you have to try to keep it away from him.”
The Jets’ reunited top line of Mark Scheifele between Wheeler and Connor looks rejuvenated and they’ll need to drive the bus offensively for the Jets to have a chance to advance.
While most of the signs are pointing to an Oilers victory, that cloudy crystal ball says take the Jets in seven.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.