Forget McDavid versus Matthews. This is the North Division final that few, if any, saw coming.

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This article was published 31/5/2021 (361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Forget McDavid versus Matthews. This is the North Division final that few, if any, saw coming.

At long last, the Winnipeg Jets finally know their second-round dance partner. And it’s a rather unexpected one in the plucky Montreal Canadiens, who rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs in three straight elimination games, capped by Monday night’s 3-1 clincher that sent shockwaves through the centre of the hockey universe.

The best-of-seven series begins Wednesday night at Bell MTS in an true battle of underdogs, with the third-seeded Jets owning home-ice advantage over the fourth-seeded Canadiens. Game 2 goes Friday at the downtown barn before shifting to Montreal for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Monday.

All of which comes as a welcome relief for Winnipeg players and coaches who, to quote former NBA star Allen Iverson, are getting tired of talkin’ about practice.

"We’ve had more practices in the last week than we had in two straight months of the regular season," bench boss Paul Maurice said following Monday’s skate, which felt a bit like Groundhog Day around here given it had been a week since they eliminated the Edmonton Oilers in a four-game sweep.

"It’s a whole new set of circumstances. You have an opportunity to get healthy and we have. We’ve used that. You want to stay sharp. You’re not looking at ramping up the conditioning, you’re not grinding your team at this time. The fact that the NHL is so routine oriented that in a normal NHL year, you can certainly draw on your experiences. But from the get-go, nothing has been the same. So that is now normal for us. This is different, no big deal, you get use to it and you move on."

Winnipeg went 6-3-0 against Montreal during the regular-season, with three of those victories coming in overtime. The winner of the series moves on to the Stanley Cup semi-finals, playing the winner of the Colorado-Vegas series. The winners of Tampa Bay/Carolina and Boston/New York Islanders meet in the other semi-final.

The Jets will be hoping to follow the lead of the Avalanche, which didn’t show any signs of rust on Sunday night coming off a week-long break that was earned by a first-round sweep of St. Louis. Colorado routed Vegas 7-1, with the Golden Knights coming off a seven-game series against Minnesota that ended just 48-hours earlier. Factor in two extra days of rest for Winnipeg and the situation will be identical on Wednesday.

"I don’t know exactly what they did, but just worrying about ourselves and how to hopefully take advantage of the rest we got," Jets forward Andrew Copp said of putting all this down time to good use.

"Everybody get as healthy as possible, then work up to being ready to go for the game. We’ve had some layoffs this year and been up and down in how we’ve responded to those. Obviously this one is probably a little bit longer than those. I think we’ll be ready to go. I think we’ll be fast. To replicate what (Colorado) did, they were impressive (Sunday) night, so hopefully we can come out with that same kind of jump."

The Jets have been on the other side of this coin before. In the spring of 2018, they went into Nashville and won a dramatic Game 7, sending them to the Western Conference final which began two nights later against Vegas. The Jets carried over that momentum and scored a huge Game 1 victory on home ice, only to seemingly run out of gas and drop the next four.

Montreal Canadiens players mob teammate Brendan Gallagher after his goal during the second period in Toronto, Monday. Montreal would go on to win the game 3-1 and beat Toronto in the seven game series 4-3. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette</p>

Montreal Canadiens players mob teammate Brendan Gallagher after his goal during the second period in Toronto, Monday. Montreal would go on to win the game 3-1 and beat Toronto in the seven game series 4-3. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

"How quickly the series kind of turned in their favour," Copp recalled Monday.

"Maybe (Vegas) were a little rusty in Game 1 and slowly built back up in the series. I think that experience, whatever happens in Game 1, we can revert back to that series in the opposite way. Just remember what we were feeling, remember how it went, then take that into account with whatever is happening in the series. Then just not get too high or get too low. That was my first playoffs and I think the more times you go through it, the more even keeled you are."

Maurice isn’t overly concerned about momentum — either the Jets seemingly losing it by being off so long, or Montreal carrying it forward from their big victory Monday night.

"I’ve never put a whole lot of stock into momentum. The puck drops and it’s a new opportunity," he said.

"Everybody has got a set of circumstances that they have to deal with. We haven’t played a game in a week. That’s what we’re dealing with. We want to be sharp, but we want to make sure everybody is ready to go. On the other hand, we’re going to play a team that’s played a bunch of hockey and they will be in a rhythm. That’s how they’ll feel about Game 1. Drop the puck and everybody will stop talking about we’ll assess from there."

Perhaps nobody is champing at the bit more than reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, who was stellar in the first-round. He is a creature of habit and an admitted workaholic who can’t remember the last time he went nine days between games.

"I think we have a great coaching staff that manages us the right way," said Hellebuyck, who went 4-0 with a 1.60 goals-against-average and .950 save percentage against Edmonton.

"Having some alone time with Flats (goalie coach Wade Flaherty), where we don’t just necessarily have pucks beat at us, but we actually worked on details. I think that was huge. It’s easy in a break like this to kind of get off your game. So to sit back and really work at the details, and not just work hard, but work smart is very important. I think we have the right guys and the right coaching staff to do that."

Hellebuyck still carries a bitter taste in his mouth over that third-round loss to Vegas, knowing how close they came to reaching the promised land. And that’s serving as extra motivation in this current playoff run, with the Jets one of eight teams left in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.

"I just think we are a different team from there. Experience-wise, we know how hard it is, how the smallest details matter and how easy it is to slip away and lose a series," said Hellebuyck.

"Every game and every second counts. For me, looking back then, I was really disappointed in how it finished. Going into this now, I know how bad it feels to lose. I’m definitely going to give it my all and leave it all out there."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.