To stop Edmonton, one must stop Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.
The Winnipeg Jets head into Wednesday’s first-round playoff series opener in Edmonton knowing full well that keeping McDavid from the scoresheet is their best chance for success.
Actually doing it, however, has been nearly impossible this season.
McDavid led the NHL with 105 points — 21 more than runner-up and teammate Leon Draisaitl — in only 56 games. He also racked up seven goals and 22 points in nine games against the Jets.
“We’re excited to have the opportunity to go in and try to play our best,” Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey said. “We made a lot of strides … in our defensive game the last few weeks. So we’re going to have to be at our best in order to play well against this team that’s very dangerous off the rush. I’m excited individually to get back to playoff hockey here. It’s the best time of the year.”
Led by McDavid, the Oilers (35-19-2, 72 points) finished second in the North Division. On the way, they took seven of nine games against the third-place Jets (30-23-3, 63 points).
“If you want to call us an underdog, go ahead. We’ll use that as energy,” Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. “Any little advantage that we can get right now, we’re going to take. That’s what it takes in the playoffs.”
Winnipeg finished the season with a 4-2 victory over the division champion Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, their second consecutive win after a horrid stretch in which they lost nine of 10 games.
“Our game has had a fairly substantial shift in style and it started in a stretch of hockey where we were losing games,” coach Paul Maurice said. “I really believe that that’s going to be the best thing that happened for us. We didn’t score easily and we had to grind it. So that’s the underdog mentality. You’re going to try and give the other team as little as possible, then still make sure you’re aggressive that you can get yours.”
The Oilers finished the regular season with a 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday that snapped a three-game winning streak, but won six of their final eight games.
All of that success, against the league and especially the Jets, has little bearing on the playoffs.
“As of right now, it means nothing,” forward Jujhar Khaira said. “During the season, it was great and got us to the spot we wanted to be going into the playoffs. Everybody knows that playoffs are a different animal. Whatever happened in the regular season doesn’t count anymore. We’re going in there as a hungry team and a team that has something to prove.”
If the Oilers need a reminder how things change, they only need look to last season. Edmonton was second in its division when the league shut down the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but were unceremoniously upset by the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in their best-of-five qualifying round series.
“We’re a motivated group,” goaltender Mike Smith said. “We don’t want to tiptoe in here and say, ‘We made the playoffs, we’ll have another chance at it next year.’ We want to do some damage right now.
“This team is in a different spot than we were even a year ago,” Smith added. “There have been players in our locker room that took huge steps, not only on the ice but off the ice as a leadership group. This team just found ways to win games all year. That’s what you have to do in playoffs.”
–Field Level Media