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Analysis: Five reasons the Winnipeg Jets swept the Edmonton Oilers

Four one-shot games.

Three of those required overtime and the final one needed a grand total of 106 minutes and 52 seconds to determine a victor.

When Kyle Connor delivered the series-clincher on a wrister after Neal Pionk forced Connor McDavid into a turnover, the Winnipeg Jets had done enough to secure a four-game sweep of the favoured Edmonton Oilers.

Yes, the margin was razor thin, but this was one of those situations where the focus was both on the how (we’ll get to that in a moment) and the how many, which in this case was four consecutive victories.

It’s true the Jets bounced the Oilers for the first sweep in franchise history (including both Jets 1.0 and 2.0).

It’s also true that if not for a curious decision by Oilers winger Josh Archibald to go for a low bridge hit on Jets defenceman Logan Stanley that resulted in a tripping minor and eventually a one-game suspension for clipping, this series is probably ongoing instead of ending abruptly.

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Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – May 23' RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – May 23
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Paul Maurice Interview – May 23 – May 23, 2021

“At the end of this, it’s four games of one shot, and we had to weather storms at times,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “They were dominant, and then we had those times as well. A really, really close series. The 4-0 isn’t particularly fair or indicative of how tight that was.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

While the Oilers were left to focus on what might have been, the Jets were able to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since a run to the Western Conference final in 2018.

This was an important step in the process, but that’s all it was.

The Jets will face the winner of the series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

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Thanks to consecutive victories, the Maple Leafs hold a 3-1 edge with Game 5 set for Thursday in Toronto.

“So there’s a great value in this series and what you can draw on in the next,” said Maurice. “We’re going to see one of two really, really good teams. Different styles of hockey we’ll have to adjust to in the next round.”

Here are five reasons the Jets were able to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs:

The stellar play of Connor Hellebuyck

This isn’t a new development, nor should it be a surprising one.

But it can’t be ignored either.

This was some of the best goaltending the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner has supplied in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Turning aside 151 of 159 shots on goal he faced in the four games, Hellebuyck finished with a ridiculous .950 save percentage and 1.60 goals-against average in his four starts, which included a shutout in Game 2..

Going into the series, I asked Jets forward Andrew Copp if he felt that Hellebuyck might be the great equalizer against an Oilers team that won the regular-season series 7-2 and had one the final six meetings.

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Copp preferred another term, saying he thought Hellebuyck had the ability to be a difference-maker.

No matter what term you choose to use, Hellebuyck had his fingerprints all over the four victories.

How good was he?

Just one of the eight goals he surrendered came in the third period, the tip-in from Jujhar Khaira that made it a 4-1 game.

Otherwise, he was basically a brick wall, making plenty of difficult saves look routine and tossing in a few of the highlight-reel variety for good measure.

Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele (55) scores on Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) during first period NHL Stanley Cup playoff action in Winnipeg on Monday, May 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade.

The play of the Jets’ reunited top line

There was a segment of the Jets’ fan base that rolled its eyes when Maurice decided to put Scheifele back between Connor and captain Blake Wheeler late in the regular season.

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Could the Jets top trio produce as much as they might give up?

The answer was yes.

Without the benefit of having the last change in Edmonton, Maurice didn’t shy away from the best on best matchup and the Scheifele line helped keep both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl without a point through two games.

The offence eventually came as well, with the crescendo arriving in the series finale, as Scheifele delivered his first two goals, Connor provided the triple OT winner and Wheeler chipped in a pair of assists, but also made a major sacrifice on a blocked shot that caught him in a sensitive area below the belt.

The trio combined for 14 points, with half of those coming at even-strength.

They most definitely did their part in all three zones and rewarded Maurice for his faith in them – which was unwavering.

“I wasn’t worried about the analytics during the year, at all. In part, it’s because they have a chemistry at speed,” said Maurice. “So they get into these types of games, and you think back to late in the Minnesota series, the Nashville series (in 2018), in the other ones as well, they’re a good group together. They also, there’s not a lot of people that can play at the level they can play at in terms of the speed. That’s what separates them.

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“It goes right to Kyle Connor’s game-winning goal. He’s got a specific skill-set and he needs certain people to play with to kind of get to that. Mark can make an awful lot of great plays at speed. Blake, look at his assist numbers over the years, in the last four or five years — he’s world-class. So they need each other to bring out the best in each other. But the other piece that it does, is it puts everybody else in the spot that they should be in.”

The defence didn’t rest

Go ahead and call them an unheralded bunch, just don’t call them the weak link.

Although a renewed commitment of the five-man unit was essential to holding the Oilers to eight goals in four games, it’s important to give the Jets’ defence corps its due.

Josh Morrissey had an exceptional series, picking up a goal and four points while taking a big chunk of the responsibility of going head-to-head with McDavid and Draisaitl.

It was a revolving door of defence partners for Morrissey, but his game turned the corner late in the season and he flourished on the top pairing with Dylan DeMelo in this series.

Morrissey’s goal in Game 3 capped a crazy stretch of three goals scored in three minutes and three seconds to turn a 4-1 deficit into a tie game, setting the stage for Nikolaj Ehlers’ heroics.

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But it was Morrissey’s poise with the puck and defensive efficiency and willingness to battle in what is clearly one of the toughest matchups in the NHL right now that stood out above all other things.

Read more: Hextall on Hockey: Jets playoff sweep an impressive surprise

The exclamation point was logging a franchise-record 41:54 of ice time – in the second game in as many days that required extra time.

“When the rest of the group looked fatigued, he got stronger,” said Maurice. “There were two or three breakout plays that probably didn’t get noticed where he killed the play when  everybody else was gassed on the ice and then came into the hole and got faster on the ice.

“For Josh, this series was hopefully a preview, but a next level for him. He defended against the best player in the world and he put up points and he scores the tying goal (Sunday) night. So he now maybe has the  kind of full evolution of where he’s going to get to as a player. You can play against Connor McDavid and you can score probably the biggest goal (of the series).”

Morrissey and DeMelo played some of their best hockey of the entire season, relishing the opportunity to be paired together once again.

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The Jets got solid contributions from all three pairings and that was a vital development.

Leaning on experience

The debate surrounding the ability to measure the value of playoff experience rages on, but there’s no denying the Jets’ maturity was on display in this series.

Some of the scar tissue the Jets have accumulated since 2018 – coupled with a late-season swoon that included a seven-game losing skid and dropping nine of the final 12 games – meant the core group on this team has plenty of recent examples of dealing with adversity to lean on when things get tough.

So rather than wilt under pressure, the Jets found a way to respond when a pushback was required.

Often it was the group of players who have been in similar spots before that were leading the charge.

Veteran centre Paul Stastny provided the overtime winner in Game 2, then played nearly 30 minutes in the series finale as he continued to showcase his intelligent, two-way game.

He’s such a calming presence on and off the ice and he’s shown time and time again why the Jets made the offseason deal with the Vegas Golden Knights to bring him back to the organization for a second tour of duty.

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Unsung heroes deliver

History is littered with examples of players on the periphery of the roster coming up with magical moments and critical plays.

In Game 1, it was Dominic Toninato stepping up to tip in a point shot from Stanley for what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Toninato dealt with a serious bout of Covid-19 going into the season, started on the long-term injury list and was limited to two games with the Jets and another three with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Scheifele & Hellebuyck Interview – May 24' RAW: Winnipeg Jets Scheifele & Hellebuyck Interview – May 24
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Scheifele & Hellebuyck Interview – May 24 – May 25, 2021

But that didn’t prevent the taxi squad regular from stepping in and making things happen on the fourth line in the first two games of the series.

Speaking of the fourth line, veteran centre Nate Thompson had two helpers in the series opener after recording five points in 44 games during the regular season.

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The Jets have spoken often about the importance of depth this season and should they find a way to advance beyond the second round, you can bet there will be a few more players’ names that are added to this list of unsung heroes.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

 

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