As the Winnipeg Jets navigated their way to Edmonton on Sunday to officially be absorbed by one of two National Hockey League bubbles, the preparation for their Qualifying Series will take a major but unique step this week.
Traditionally, the Jets have scheduled as many as seven preseason games interspersed amongst their training camp skates and workouts. This time around there won’t be that luxury and a one-game exhibition snap-shot is all that is allotted before the resumption of the NHL season gets set to conclude in earnest.
So, on Wednesday, when the Jets hit this ice in Northern Alberta against the Vancouver Canucks as a precursor to their best-of-five set with the Calgary Flames starting three days later, it could be a preseason game in name only.
"These guys are going to want to play this game," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, whose club will have had 14 full, on-ice workouts prior to Wednesday’s tilt. "They need the exhibition game to test themselves. I’m sure Vancouver feels the same way.
"(Usually) nobody wants to play the last exhibition game. Nobody wants to get hurt. They’ve already done their work; they’ve got their touches. This will be completely different in terms of how we view the preparation value. It may not tell you exactly where you’re at, but it’s a real important preparation step."
For Winnipeg’s starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, Wednesday’s exhibition game is a solitary opportunity to generate momentum heading into the weekend’s Qualifying Round.
"Everyone’s amping it up and starting to get their battle level higher," he said. "This is where you make your mistakes, learn from them and essentially get better. We’re not going to overlook or overthink a lot of things, but instead keep them in mind with the preparation of going forward."
And while the score doesn’t matter – it never does in preseason games, of course -Maurice admits there are a few key items he’ll be reviewing after the Vancouver game to truly gauge where his club is leading up to the weekend, but not necessarily judging his team’s systems-play execution.
"I’ll be looking more for where I think the pace of the game is at," he said. "We hope it’s a high-paced game. We’re going to look for how the individual now looks at game speed."
Regardless, Jets and Canucks fans will likely be treated to rare meaningful NHL preseason game Wednesday night – one that could be slightly more spirited than anything the NHL has previous served up in the preseason in years.
Wednesday’s game should feature an excellent battle of two premier NHL goaltenders in Hellebuyck and Jacob Markstrom. Both had solid statistical numbers this season (Hellebuyck: 31 wins, 2.57 GAA, .922 SV %; Markstrom: 23 wins, 2.75 GAA, .918 SV %).
The Canucks start their Qualifying Round series with the Minnesota Wild on Sunday, August 2 and hold home-ice advantage in that set.
Here are the expected but unconfirmed lineups:
PREPARE FOR OVERTIME
Based on the presumption that a five-game series will force the Qualifying Round teams into more desperation more quickly, the prospect of overtime deciding each affair becomes more possible. Historically, the Jets are 1-2 in their playoff overtime history. They lost Game 3 of a first-round series to Anaheim in 2014-15 and in double OT of Game 2 in the second round against Nashville in 2017-18. The team’s only playoff overtime victory occurred last season on the road in St. Louis when Kyle Connor scored 6:02 into OT to defeat the Blues 2-1 in Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2. Since Winnipeg and Calgary appear to be evenly matched entering the series, don’t be surprised if extra time becomes timely in deciding certain games or ultimately who advances to the next round.
Now that the finalists have been named for the various 2020 NHL awards, look for the winners to be officially revealed during the Conference Finals in September. Exact dates and times have not been determined but regardless of whether the Jets are still battling in the Stanley Cup Playoffs or not, the announcement of the Vezina Trophy winner will be of great interest to Jets fans and goalie Connor Hellebuyck in particular. The 27-year-old is a finalist for the second time in three seasons and appears to be the frontrunner to win it for the first time. Now, it’s difficult to compare statistical numbers between his competition for the award in Boston’s Tuukka Rask and Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy because all three find their way into the top five of many goaltending categories. But Hellebuyck receives the accolade in this space based on workload. He appeared in more games than the other two. In fact, he was in the net 17 more times than Rask alone. And he faced more shots and thus made more saves than either of his peers including 191 more than Vasilevskiy – or approximately another six-plus games worth. Based on shot volume and his subsequent numbers off that, Hellebuyck should be cashing a bonus cheque from the Jets after this fall’s Vezina announcement.
Remember not that long ago when the Jets’players were answering questions about playoff experience or the lack of it? In just a couple short years, times have certainly changed. Prior to their first-round series with Minnesota two years ago, Winnipeg was lean on post-season maturity. Now there’s an abundance of it. In the past two seasons the Flames have played just five post-season games while the Jets have suited up for 23. The difference is truly just a number but an intangible nonetheless in an otherwise "pick em" series.
HE SAID IT
"He’s in mid-season chirping form. He doesn’t need a training camp for that."
Maurice on defenceman Anthony Bitetto, who missed most of training camp after being quarantined with COVID-19.