The Winnipeg Jets sweeping aside the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was a surprise.
Just as shocking, if not on another level, was the Montreal Canadiens winning three straight games to author a seven-game upset of the North Division-champion Toronto Maple Leafs, capped by Monday’s 3-1 victory.
Now, it will be interesting to see which team has the upper hand when the second-round, best-of-seven series between the victors begins Wednesday in Winnipeg.
The Jets are well-rested, having nine days between games, so their concern is rust. The Canadiens have incredible momentum, but very little recovery time before suiting up. In fact, they flew out of Toronto immediately after their win to spend an off day in Winnipeg on Tuesday.
“As soon as we got up (Tuesday) morning, though, we focused on our preparation for the Jets,” Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme said. “It’s important to turn the page. It’s important to enjoy the moment, but also to turn the page and prepare for Game 1.”
Winnipeg won six of the nine regular season meetings between the clubs, three of those victories coming via overtime, so the Canadiens know what they’re up against.
“They’re a good hockey team,” Ducharme said. “They’re solid up front. They have lines that can deliver offense and energy. They have good variety on defense and a good goaltender too. It will be a good challenge.”
However, the Canadiens believe they have an ace in the hole with goaltender Carey Price, who was the difference in their series win over Toronto.
“It’s just so easy playing in front of him because you know he’s there to bail you out,” forward Brendan Gallagher said. “It’s a different level of confidence when you have Pricey back there, especially in these elimination games. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
The Jets have a top-shelf goaltender of their own in 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, who posted a 1.60 goals-against average and .950 save percentage against the high-octane Oilers during the opening round. He’s had plenty of time to recover and refocus on the coming task.
“Having some alone time with (goalie coach Wade Flaherty), where we don’t just necessarily have pucks beat at us, but we actually worked on details,” Hellebuyck said. “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.”
Although the Jets are looking to make amends for their past two playoff disappointments — they were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round in 2019 and last year lost to the Calgary Flames in the qualifying round — they have their 2018 run to the Western Conference final to draw upon.
That year, the Jets were in Montreal’s current situation: Winnipeg had to jump from a seven-game series to face a more rested Vegas Golden Knights squad. Vegas won that series in five games, but the Jets won the opener.
“We came out in Game 1 riding a high from winning that (previous) series. I thought we kind of dominated Game 1 and how quickly the series kind of turned in their favor,” recalled forward Andrew Copp. “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.”
–Field Level Media