Jets vs Wild: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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A rivalry that needed a playoff meeting to really cement its status will finally add that chapter when the puck drops between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

The Jets and Wild have been divisional rivals for a few years now and the bad blood has grown during that time, but this will be the first time both teams meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — a chance for the hatred to grow.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The series will feature a team heavy with playoff experience and another with a bunch of excited players who’ve seen limited time in the postseason.

The Wild boast a roster with a combined 748 playoffs games, that compares to the Jets’ 265. Several of Winnipeg’s roster, including 44-goal man Patrik Laine, 32-goal rookie forward Kyle Connor and 44-game winner Connor Hellebuyck, will make their playoff debut on Friday. So while the Jets are favorites to take the series in the end, it may take a period or two for half the team to settle into a new style of hockey.

Winnipeg enters the postseason relatively healthy, although they’ll be missing Toby Enstrom (ankle) and Dmitry Kulikov (back) on the blue line to start the playoffs (with Kulikov much further away from returning than Enstrom). The addition of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline has been instrumental for the Jets, who have a centre that has figured out how to play with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

The Wild, meanwhile, won’t have Ryan Suter for the entirety of their playoff run after the defenseman needed surgery to fix a fractured ankle. Suter averaged 26:47 of ice time per game during the regular season, second only to Drew Doughty‘s 26:50. Simply put, it’s a big hole to fill against one of the league’s hottest offensive teams.

The Jets took the season series 3-1-0, beating the Wild twice in October in one-goal wins before pounding them 7-2 in November. In their final meeting back in January, the Wild picked up a 4-1 decision.

There are several storylines attached to this series, so let’s dive right in.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Jets: Winnipeg’s bread and butter. The Jets finished second to the Tampa Bay Lightning in goals-for with 273 and boasted a lineup with a 44-goal scorer in Laine, a 31-goal scorer in Connor and 29 markers from Ehlers. Blake Wheeler tied for the NHL-lead with 68 assists in a career-year. And the Jets found secondary scoring throughout, with eight of their 12 forwards in double-digits in goal-scoring. As you’d expect, a team that put up as much offense as the Jets would also look good in the analytics department. And they do. Winnipeg finished 10th in terms of shot share at 51.5 percent and fourth in goals-for percentage at 54.6 percent.

Wild: Minnesota is no slouch in the goal-scoring department. Eric Staal turned back the clock this season and scored 42 times and Jason Zucker tallied 33 times. The Wild finished 11th in goal scoring and averaged over three goals per game, but lacked when it came to shot share, finishing 29th in the league with 47.2 percent. They were 12th in goals-for percentage, however, at 52.2 percent. Zach Parise has been a force since the beginning of March.

Advantage: Jets, but this is closer than one might think given one team hs a guy named Laine.

DEFENSE

Jets: The Jets are missing Enstrom and Kulikov to start and will depend on Joe Morrow (a trade deadline acquisition) and Ben Chiarot to keep up their solid play in relief. The top pairing of Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey will be tasked with shutting down the Wild’s offense. Despite significant injuries to the aforementioned Kulikov, Enstrom and Trouba throughout the season, the Jets still managed to fifth least goals-against in the league.

Wild: We talked about Suter in the introduction and his absence will be felt, but the pending return of Jared Spurgeon who missed 12 games to close out the regular season, is a welcome addition and should soften the blow, even if only slightly. The Wild finished 11th in fewest goals-against this season and have an offensive weapon with Matt Dumba, who recorded 50 points. That said, Carson Soucy and Nick Seeler are in tough if Spurgeon isn’t ready to go.

Advantage: Give it to the Jets as they’re not missing a top-pairing defensemen. It’s close, but Suter’s skates are impossible to fill.

GOALTENDING

Jets: The Jets signed Steve Mason in the offseason in hopes he’d be the teams No. 1. But 82 games later and it was Hellebuyck who had taken the No. 1 role and never gave it back in a Vezina-worthy campaign where he posted a .924 save percentage while setting a new franchise-high with 44 wins. Hellebuyck had six shutouts on the year and became the winningest American born goaltender and tied a league record with 30 wins at home.

Wild: Dubnyk posted 35 wins in 59 starts and put up a .918 save percentage and has 21 games of playoff experience to his name. Dubnyk had his struggles at times this seasons, but was effective nonetheless, especially at home where he only lost six games in regulation.

Side note: Hellebuyck and Dubnyk share the same trainer, Adam Francilia, at NET 360 in Kelowna, British Columbia. Both trained together in the summer and are good friends. But Dubnyk said this week that their friendship will go out the door for this series. 

Advantage: Hellebuyck, at least on paper. Dubnyk has the benefit of playoff experience while Hellebuyck has the luxury of home-ice advantage. Give it to the sophomore, but this is close.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jets: They call him a cheat code on the power play, a near-exact replica of Alex Ovechkin with all the same lethality from Ovi’s office. Laine led the league with 20 power play goals to help the Jets to the fifth-best power play in the NHL at 23.4 percent. Winnipeg’s much-improved penalty kill, meanwhile, saw them finish ninth with an 81.8 percent success rate.

Wild: The Wild do not have have a cheat code, but Staal chipped in with 11 power play goals this season. That said, Minnesota’s power play ranked 18th in terms of its success rate at 20.4 percent. On the penalty kill, the Wild only trail by half a percent, or as near as makes no difference.

Advantage: Jets. Laine tips the scales here with both penalty kills virtual identical.

X-FACTORS

Jets: Hellebuyck. He’s played the most minutes out of any other goaltender in the NHL this season yet was as steady as they come. He’s brushed aside questions of fatigue and got some rest down the stretch. Hellebuyck has been calm, cool and collected in the lead up to Wednesday’s opener. He lacks playoff experience, but if he plays the way he did this season, it shouldn’t matter.

Wild: Spurgeon’s health. He softens the blow in the wake of Suter’s season-ending injury and provides the Wild with another scoring threat on the blue line. The Jets own arguably the best offense in the league and Minnesota is going to need all the help it can get trying to contain it.

PREDICTION

Jets in six games. The loss of Suter can’t be understated, nor can the skill of the Winnipeg Jets.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck