You couldn't blame the Winnipeg Jets if they had started preparing for their second-round opponent a little early. Alas, even the best laid plans can go awry.
Just when it looked as if the Jets would be facing off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the all-Canadian division final, which kicks off with Game 1 tonight in Winnipeg, the Montreal Canadiens had other ideas. The Canadiens would ultimately erase a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series against the Leafs, completing the improbable comeback with a 3-1 victory in Toronto Monday night.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice claimed his team hadn't totally tilted the early preparations in favour of the Leafs. But he did admit it can be a challenge covering off two teams simultaneously, meaning there was a bit of method to the madness come study time.
"We would have a program we run in terms of video and analytics, and we can run those both separately. In terms of how you watch a game… it’s not, from a pre-scout point of view, it’s not an easy thing to watch both teams at the same time," Maurice said.
"So we went back and forth, we never actually shifted, we just made sure that we were running concurrently with both teams. It happened that we started with Toronto video at 3-1, because that seemed to make sense. And at 3-2, then the next day we went back and started on Montreal."
The Jets have had ample time to rest and prep for their next series, after disposing of the Edmonton Oilers in four straight games in their opening-round series sweep. Winnipeg hasn't played in more than a week, while Montreal required a much-needed day off the ice Tuesday after playing seven games – two of which went into overtime – over a 12-day stretch.
There was plenty to glean from the Canadiens through seven games, including the resiliency of a team that not only struggled heading into the post-season, losing their last five regular-season games, but then turned things around enough to knock off the first-place club in the division. The Leafs held top spot in the North all season but looked like a shell of their usual selves as the series wore on.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, took what was a mostly an up-and-down season — and start to the series — and completely flipped the script, beginning in Game 5.
"It's a team that they kind of have a little bit of everything. They have some speed, they work hard, they have some grit," Jets forward Nate Thompson, who played 79 games over parts of two seasons with the Canadiens, said.
"You look at the way they just won the last round, any team that comes back from 3-1 — I've been a part of that — it takes a lot of character and a lot of belief. You can tell that team believes in themselves and what they're doing."
While the Canadiens certainly have a sturdy group of defencemen, highlighted by Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and a tenacious group of forwards, with Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson, the biggest piece of their collective puzzle resides in the crease. The Jets are built a bit differently, with a high-flying offence and an inspired back end, but they, too, are built from the goaltender out.
Indeed, Montreal's Carey Price and Connor Hellebuyck for Winnipeg will take up a sizable amount of the series' spotlight. Price was near unbeatable at times versus the Leafs, and Hellebuyck stood tall against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — the NHL's two leading scorers — and the Oilers.
"Two of the best in the game. Carey Price is probably the top goalie of my generation," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "He’s shown the ability to steal big games, steal big moments, had a big part in their last series, too. Nothing but respect for what he’s done."
Wheeler added: "Obviously we think very highly of Helly and the accomplishments he’s had in the couple years in the league. So, I think the overriding theme is that we’ve just got to be patient, allow our goalie to do his thing and understand that we’re going in against a team that’s going to do the same thing against their goalie. We try to let him see the puck and feel that if he’s seeing pucks, he’s going to stop them all."
What will be different in this series compared to the last is the Jets are no longer underdogs, but the favourites to move on to the final-four. Against Edmonton, a team the Jets lost six straight games to in the regular season before sweeping the series, Winnipeg was given little hope by outsiders, creating a seemingly massive chip on their shoulders from which the Jets to generated momentum.
The Jets were much more successful versus the Canadiens throughout the year, winning six out of the nine games between the two clubs, even if three were decided in extra time. Maurice said those labels come from outside the locker room, and the focus remains on playing a consistent brand of hockey necessary to be successful at this time of the year.
"Whether it's the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto or Montreal, there are certain things that playoff hockey demands and we're trying to adhere to that," Maurice said.
"Our focus won't be offensive; we're not going to be talking about how we generate more offence on the team. A usual tell, and you see it a lot, and you saw with the Toronto series, is the losing team says we had our chances. And it's true because there are chances to be had and if you score on those you probably win the game. But that can't be their focus, on how many chances can you generate, because the other team is going to get as many as you get. So, we don't want to turn it into that kind of game."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.