NHL playoff preview: Gritty Winnipeg Jets pose rugged test for Anaheim Ducks.
Regular season recaps
Dec. 7: Ducks 4, Jets 3 (OT)
Dec. 13: Ducks 4, Jets 1
Jan. 11: Ducks 5, Jets 4 (SO)
Ducks: G John Gibson (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Keys to a Ducks victory
That third consecutive Pacific Division title looks great on a resume ... which is something that Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau will need to polish and print out if his Ducks fail again to build on their regular season success. His teams always have proved to be something less than the sum of their parts in the postseason—he’s never guided one past the second round—so expect a heightened sense of urgency this time around.
The Ducks will rely heavily on Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, as they always do. The pair rank among the most impactful in the game, playing a heavy, grinding style that’s certain to produce results. But what’ll put this team over the top is an improved supporting cast. Ryan Kesler gives them the second-line center they’ve needed for years, a battle-tested warrior who creates a match-up problem for the opposition. Rickard Rakell is a nice fit on a third line that uses speed and grit to drive possession. Jiri Sekac and Matt Beleskey are wild cards up front. Both are maddeningly inconsistent but have the skill that could swing a game. One thing the group needs to do as a whole is work on drawing penalties. The Ducks have earned just 11 chances with the extra man in their past seven games. The style of play that suggests is not a pathway to postseason success.
The Ducks are ideally suited to meet the challenge of Winnipeg’s relentless forecheck with a poised group of blueliners led by Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm. All three can skate and move the puck under pressure.
With John Gibson’s injury, it looks like Frederik Andersen will get the start in net for Game 1. Whether he finishes the series though is a toss-up. He’s been their best option of late, winning four of his past five outings with a solid .928 save percentage, but Boudreau is legendary for his short leash. Assuming he returns, expect Gibson to see action in this series.
Keys to a Jets victory
Don’t be so quick to label the Jets as underdogs. Despite entering the tournament as a wild card Winnipeg finished 10-3-1 to secure its spot. Full credit to Ondrej Pavelec: The much-maligned keeper was in the zone, spinning three consecutive road shutouts to end the season. Can he keep it going? No one really expects him to take this team the distance, but he could surprise in a short series.
Like the Ducks, the Jets play a heavy game geared toward grinding an opponent down. They finished fourth in road hits, a fair reflection of their commitment to dishing out punishment. There’s plenty of skill up front, led by the underappreciated Bryan Little, speedster Blake Wheeler and fast-developing center Mark Schiefele, but the real strength of the group is its depth. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did a nice job filling in the blanks at the trade deadline, adding Drew Stafford and Lee Stempniak. Both have surprised with their contributions and commitment.
The Jets could find an edge by playing as much of the series at even strength as possible. Winnipeg topped Anaheim in all the critical five-on-five metrics including goals ratio (the Jets were eighth at 1.15 compared to 1.04 for the 15th rated Ducks), goal differential (+22, seventh, to +9, 13th) and save percentage (92.8, ninth, to 91.9, 21st).
The ultimate difference though may be pressure. While the Ducks are built—and expected—to win now, the Jets are playing with house money. Steal a game early and bring it home to MTS Centre—where they finished 12-2-2—and this series could swing in a hurry.
If I could pick one game to attend in the entire first round, I’d take Game 3 at MTS to watch the best fans in the league finally celebrate a home playoff date. It’ll be a madhouse. Or maybe a madhouse. Either way, it’ll be a blast. That said, they better enjoy it while it lasts. I expect it to be tough series, but Anaheim’s ridiculous 33-1-7 record in one-goal games reveals a championship-caliber ability to close the deal. Sorry, Jets fans. No upset here. Anaheim in six.