Learning to Fly
Never tell the Winnipeg Jets, or their fans, the odds.
With a youthful lineup featuring little playoff experience, arm-chair analysts and pundits were ready to rule out a deep run in the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Playoffs for this Winnipeg team.
How wrong they were.
In the opening round, the Jets shocked the hockey world with how thorough and decisive their 4-1 series win over the Minnesota Wild was, including a commanding game five victory in which they showed no mercy and won 5-0.
Jets fans marveled at their team winning Round One of the playoffs. This was an incredible milestone for a Jets team to reach, as the franchise (including their stint as the Atlanta Thrashers) had not won a playoff series in 31 years.
With excitement and hope, Jets fans and players alike looked on to a second series. However, overcoming their next opponent would not be as easy a task as dispatching the Wild.
On paper, the Jets competing with – let alone defeating – the Nashville Predators seemed, in many ways, improbable.
In net for the Jets is 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck, who was playing in the first Round Two series of his career. Staring him down from opposite ends of the ice was veteran goaltender Pekka Rinne. The Predators Communications and Content Editor notes that, “out of goaltenders who played at least 50 games this season, Rinne finished first in save percentage (.927), even-strength save percentage (.938) and goals-against average (2.31).” Rinne is a nominated finalist, and rumoured front runner, for this year’s Vezina Trophy.
He also wasn't the only Predator considered for an award this season. Defenseman P.K Subban, who finished the season with a career high of 16 goals and 59 points, a dominant year that led to his third Norris Trophy nomination (he has one Norris Trophy win under his belt, from the 2012-13 season with the Montreal Canadiens.)
And then there’s Filip Forsberg, whose ability to score highlight reel worthy goals has become commonplace – so much so that it has led to his popular nickname, “Scoresberg”.
So how did a young team with no playoff experience reign victorious over a powerhouse franchise that was favoured to go to the Stanley Cup Final? In a series played with the intensity and quality typically reserved for the finals themselves, the Jets did not seem phased by Nashville’s star-studded and decorated lineup as both teams traded wins back and forth, forcing an eventual winner-take-all game seven.
As they always have, the city of Winnipeg rallied behind their team. A CBC News article predicted that 23,000 fans would be present outside of Bell MTS Place to show their support. That number didn't include the fans inside the sold-out arena, which has a 15,000 seat-capacity.
The Jets needed all of that support everything else to go their way in order to win this Game 7. And it did. Including an ounce of luck.
A fluke shot from Tyler Myers bounced off Rinne’s stick and over the line to open the scoring for the Winnipeg hopefuls. Two short minutes later, Paul Stastny snuck another goal past the Predators netminder, resulting in him being pulled for the fourth time this postseason. At 10:48, this was the quickest pull for a starting goalie in Game 7 in history.
Subban scored a goal in the first period to put Nashville on the board, however this was not enough to compete with the Jets' tenacious offence.
Stastny – a trade deadline acquisition – scored two goals in game seven alone and all seven of 25-year-old Mark Schiefele’s goals were scored at Nashville’s Bridgestone arena, which broke a record for most road goals scored in a single Stanley Cup playoff series.
Not only did the Jets knock out the NHL’s number one regular season team in a thrilling game 7, they did so on the road and with conviction. It was that dominance on the Predators’ home ice that led them to victory.
Paul Maurice told Pierre LeBrun for The Athletic, “the telling stat for me in this series is we played four games in here and never lost in regulation, against the best team in the league." Maurice said of Bridgestone Arena, where the Jets’ only loss in this series was in double overtime in Game 2. "That’s what you worry about with a young team. … But that’s a difficult thing to do, to get out on the road… to play well in here as consistently as we did, it’s impressive."
The Jets opened their Western Conference finals series against the Vegas Golden Knights with a 4-2 win, and if that game is any indication, both the odds and the media narrative may finally be in their favor. In the second installment of the Score’s NHL Playoff Rankings from Sean O’Leary, he has the Winnipeg Jets coming out on top as Stanley Cup Champions.
And after that Game 7 performance, the prediction doesn’t seem too far off, as unlikely as that seemed just a few short weeks ago.