The Stanley Cup remains the ultimate prize. But make no mistake: The Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens are about to compete for Canada's championship, a once-in-a-lifetime event for a hockey-crazed nation.
COVID-19 required a divisional re-alignment that saw all seven northern neighbours battle only each other for the first, and likely last, time ever. And now, one proud franchise will reign supreme, claim a unique title that will go down in the record books and give its fans the ultimate bragging rights.
Think of it as a souped-up Grey Cup on ice.
Few predicted these two finalists, with Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid the consensus favourites to lead their high-flying clubs into a second-round North Division clash. But in a world filled with surprises, Winnipeg swept the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal stunned the Toronto Maple Leafs to put both clubs on the cusp of something special.
It all begins Wednesday night at Bell MTS Place. The winner of the best-of-seven series advances to the NHL semi-finals, playing the squad that emerges from a heavyweight tilt between the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights.
The winners of Carolina/Tampa Bay and Boston/New York Islanders will meet in the other semifinal.
Unlike last round, the Jets won't be able to use being a massive underdog as motivation. They are the slight betting favourites, and also took the season series against the Habs by a 6-3-0 count, although three of those victories came in overtime so it was much closer than it might appear.
Here's everything you need to know to get ready, along with my prediction at the very end.
1. Rest vs. rust: The Jets are coming off a nine-day hiatus, while the Habs have played more hockey than anyone recently. Will that be a factor? You'll recall in 2018 how Winnipeg came off a massive seven-game series victory over Nashville to face a rested Vegas team, rode the momentum into a huge Game 1 win and then seemingly ran out of gas. There's also the very recent example of the same Golden Knights, coming off a seven-game series victory over Minnesota, getting their doors blown off the other night by a rested Colorado crew. In other words, it's hard to say until we see how it looks. But as the series goes on, you'd have to think fresher legs could be important.
2. Price vs. Hellebuyck: A sure-fire Hall of Famer facing off against a potential future Hall of Famer makes for a compelling match-up in net. Carey Price is absolutely dialed in right now, stoning a high-scoring Maple Leafs team. The same could be said for Connor Hellebuyck, who had McDavid and company repeatedly shaking their heads in the first round. Goals may be at a premium.
3. Home-ice advantage? It was a non-factor during the regular-season, with all Canadian teams playing in empty buildings. But Montreal welcomed 2,500 into Bell Centre for their Game 6 victory over Toronto, and that number could grow going forward. Here in Winnipeg, the organization has two proposals currently before provincial government and health officials seeking to have fully vaccinated front-line workers and/or family members of players allowed into the stands.
4. Familiar faces and places: Hello Joel Armia. You too, Ben Chiarot and Michael Frolik. And hey, Joel Edmundson. There's plenty of Manitoba-related flavour on the visitors, not to mention a massive fan-base for the bleu-blanc-rouge around here that should only add to the fun. On the other side, Nate Thompson spent the previous two seasons with Montreal, while Pierre-Luc Dubois, Mathieu Perreault and Paul Stastny were all born in Quebec.
5. Battle behind the bench: Paul Maurice outcoached Dave Tippett in the first-round, and he'll face a much-less experienced bench boss in Dominique Ducharme, who replaced Claude Julien in late February with the Canadiens mired in an ugly slump. Sure, Ducharme got plenty of time at the helm in junior hockey, but the NHL is a much different animal. In a series where there's tons of familiarity between the two clubs thanks to nine regular-season meetings, the coaching chess match can be crucial.
6. Let's get physical: Montreal has a big and bruising blue line with the likes of Chiarot, Edmundson and Shea Weber, and they'll likely try to inflict some pain on Winnipeg's skilled forward group. They also can play the body with the likes of Corey Perry and Josh Anderson up front. But the Jets thrived with the physical play against Edmonton and will likewise want to try to wear the Canadiens down.
7. Going deep: No, Montreal doesn't have any elite forwards like McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. But they do boast a deeper group up front. Winnipeg has one of the deepest lineups in the league, so it will be fascinating to watch some of the in-game battles that develop as the series goes on.
THE SEASON SERIES:
1. Feb. 25: Montreal 3 at Winnipeg 6 — The Jets were coming off a three-day break and caught sleeping in the first period as Armia scored twice, but it was all Winnipeg from there. Kyle Connor had a pair, while Blake Wheeler, Thompson, Dubois and Mark Scheifele had singles in a game highlighted by Nikolaj Ehlers fighting Perry, of all people.
2. Feb. 27: Montreal 1 at Winnipeg 2 OT — Stastny was the overtime hero as the Jets utilized three forwards to great success, with Ehlers and Connor setting up the veteran. Hellebuyck was the other big star, stopping 40 of 41 shots he faced
3. March 4: Winnipeg 4 at Montreal 3 OT — It was deja vu all over in the extra-session, as Ehlers and Connor set up Dubois this time for the winner in his home province. Perry had sent the game to overtime by scoring the tying goal with 84 seconds left in regulation
4. March 6: Winnipeg 1 at Montreal 7 — The Jets had been cruising, the Habs slumping, and the more desperate team was evident in a one-sided rout. Price made 29 saves while Brendan Gallagher led the offensive outburst with two goals and an assist.
5. March 15: Montreal 4 at Winnipeg 2 — The Jets were coming off three straight road games in Toronto in which they got five of six points (2-0-1), and they opened up the homestand with a dud. Tyler Toffoli scored twice and Price made 34 saves. Connor had both of Winnipeg's tallies on the power play.
6. March 17: Montreal 3 at Winnipeg 4 OT — Just like the March 4 affair, the Jets coughed up a late lead as Toffoli scored with 85 seconds left in the third period to send it to overtime. And once again, the Jets took advantage of the skills session, as Dubois set up Ehlers for the game-winner just 55 seconds into the fourth period.
7. Apr. 8: Winnipeg 4 at Montreal 2 — The Jets kicked off a five-game eastern road trip with a solid effort which included Josh Morrissey scoring just 18 seconds into the game. Hellebuyck was named first star after making 36 saves.
8. Apr. 10: - Winnipeg 5 at Montreal 0 — A dominating defensive effort, holding the Habs to just 19 shots. Hellebuyck stopped them all as Andrew Copp, Ehlers and Perreault each had a goal and assist.
9. Apr. 30 - Winnipeg 3 at Montreal 5 — The Jets started their final regular-season road trip by racing out to leads of 2-0 and 3-1, only to give up four straight goals in a losing effort. Nick Suzuki had two of them.
TALE OF THE TAPE: (Regular season numbers)
Goals for per game: Winnipeg 3.04 (12th), Montreal 2.82 (17th)
Goals against per game: Winnipeg 2.71 (10th), Montreal 2.95 (18th)
Power play: Winnipeg 23.0% (7th), Montreal 19.2% (T-17th)
Penalty kill: Winnipeg 80.5% (13th), Montreal 78.5% (T-23rd)
Shots for per game: Winnipeg 29.7 (T-16th), Montreal 31.2 (7th)
Shots against per game: Winnipeg 30.6 (20th), Montreal 28.2 (T-6th)
Faceoffs: Winnipeg 50.5% (13th), Montreal 48.4% (T-24th)
Corsi for percentage (5-on-5): Winnipeg 48.21% (21st), Montreal 54.50% (2nd)
Expected goals percentage (5-on-5): Winnipeg 46.48% (23rd), Montreal 52.93% (10th)
High-danger chances percentage (5-on-5): Winnipeg 44.63% (29th), Montreal 51.88 (12th)
WHAT THE LINEUPS LOOK LIKE:
This is based on lines and defence pairings from their most recent games:
Extras: Toninato, Harkins, Gustafsson, Dano
Extras: Benn, Heinola, Niku, Samberg
Extras: Tatar, Frolik, Lehkonen
Extras: Merrill, Romanov
WHAT VEGAS IS SAYING:
The latest Stanley Cup odds as of Tuesday are favouring the Jets in their series.
Colorado Avalanche +140 (5/7)
Tampa Bay Lightning +400 (4/1)
Boston Bruins +450 (9/2)
Vegas Golden Knights +1000 (10/1)
Carolina Hurricanes +1100 (11/1)
New York Islanders +1200 (12/1)
Winnipeg Jets +1400 (14/1)
Montreal Canadiens +1600 (16/1)
GAME SCHEDULE: (All times central)
Wed., June 2, 6:30 p.m. Montreal at Winnipeg (SN, CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN)
Fri., June 4, 6:30 p.m. Montreal at Winnipeg (SN, CBC, TVA Sports, USA)
Sun., June 6, 5 p.m. Winnipeg at Montreal (SN, TVA Sports, NBCSN)
Mon., June 7, TBD, Winnipeg at Montreal (TBD)
*Wed., June 9, TBD, Montreal at Winnipeg (TBD)
*Fri., June 11, TBD, Winnipeg at Montreal (TBD)
*Sun., June 13, TBD, Montreal at Winnipeg (TBD)
MCINTYRE'S PREDICTION: Jets in 7. It won't be easy, but I think their depth along with some valuable rest between rounds will serve Winnipeg well in the long run.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.