At the corner of Winnipeg’s Portage Ave. and Donald St. stands a fortress of red brick, smooth steel and shimmering glass. It sits atop a parcel of land steeped in history, upon a downtown corner that was for nearly a century the site of the renowned Eaton’s department store. A reminder of that bygone era can be found in the concourse, where a 3,500-pound statue of Timothy Eaton rests upon a bronze throne. But this building no longer belongs to the Eaton family. Instead, its facade is emblazoned with Bell MTS Place, and, come April, this castle will be surrounded by a sea of white, a moat of living, breathing souls with numbers creeping into the tens of thousands. Outside, their celebrations will be thundering, loud enough to be heard from miles away. Inside, the cheers and chants will be deafening. This is the most intimidating arena in the NHL. This is the home of the Winnipeg Jets. And this is the great equalizer.
As they enter the playoffs with hopes higher than there has ever been for any Jets team in NHL history, be it past or present iteration, Winnipeg does so in a unique position. Unlike short-odds Stanley Cup contenders of years past, the Jets do not boast the league’s top offense, stingiest defense or an MVP frontrunner among their ranks. Winnipeg does not possess the best power play or penalty kill, nor have they received Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck. Altogether, the Jets have spent not a single day alone atop the NHL standings, and Winnipeg’s time as the top dogs in the Western Conference was limited to merely half a month. Yet, Winnipeg remains our pick to win the 2019 Stanley Cup, just as we predicted in these pages in our annual Future Watch edition four years ago.
The atmosphere inside Bell MTS Place and the way in which the Jets feed off of it is part of the reason why we’re going against the odds, which suggest that the Tampa Bay Lightning are the heavy favorites to stand inside the winner’s circle this season. But no NHL team enjoys as great a home-ice atmosphere as the Jets, who have not only succeeded but flourished inside the friendly confines of the ‘Phone Booth,’ as it’s colloquially known in Winnipeg. “We’ve seen it throughout last year and this year, how special we play at home and how special the crowd is,” said Jets winger Brandon Tanev. “It’s electric.”
That electricity has powered the Jets to 56 home wins (and counting) since the beginning of 2017-18, the best record of any Western Conference team and second only to the Lightning’s 60 wins inside Amalie Arena, and only three visiting teams who have played three or more games in Winnipeg have managed a winning record over that time. (Tampa Bay, it should be noted, has not won in either trip to Manitoba’s capital in the past two seasons.) The Jets’ victories have been aided by one of the most lethal home-ice attacks in the NHL.
Since the beginning of 2017-18, Winnipeg has lit the lamp 298 times in its own barn, more home-ice goals than any Western Conference club, and when the Jets’ attack gets rolling, it has drawn on the energy of one of the league’s most raucous fan bases in a way that makes their former slogan, ‘Fuelled by Passion’, seem less a tagline and more a promise.
Anybody up and down the lineup can score, and when we play the way we can play, it’s a one-through-four lineup that can go out there and score against the best.
– Brandon Tanev
Winnipeg’s home-ice advantage exceeds the sometimes-nebulous benefits that the so-called seventh man can provide, however. What it also yields is the opportunity for the Jets to hurt teams in the matchup game by utilizing the last change. It’s an additional weapon for coach Paul Maurice and a way in which Winnipeg can pick apart the weaknesses of an opponent by throwing their best out against the opposition’s worst. And though it would stand to reason that the opposite is then true when Winnipeg hits the road, it’s far more difficult to find such holes in a Jets team that possesses the type of genuine top-to-bottom depth that often separates the contenders from pretenders. It’s the completeness of the roster that truly sets Winnipeg apart from those gunning for the throne.
The Jets check all the boxes. Hellebuyck, while in the midst of a so-so season, has proven himself to be a big-game goalie with clutch post-season performances last spring. The defense corps borders on unassailable. Dustin Byfuglien is a freak athlete, a unique and gargantuan specimen who can punish teams physically and with his puck-moving and offensive ability. Then there’s the rock-solid Jacob Trouba and rangy Tyler Myers, both of whom are as steady as they come with a knack for getting the puck out of danger. This is to say nothing of Josh Morrissey, who has developed into arguably the league’s most underrated rearguard.
Of course, no shortage of ink has been spilled heaping praise upon Winnipeg’s star-studded offense, which features Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, a set of 90-point players, but it’s the foundation of size, skill and speed around the Jets’ dynamic duo that separates Winnipeg’s attack from the rest of the field. Super-sniper Patrik Laine may run hot and cold, but when he’s on, there is no sight more harrowing for an opposing team than No. 29 loading up a one-timer. Meanwhile, speedsters Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers can turnstile defenders when a contest opens up. In tight-checking affairs, deadline acquisition Kevin Hayes, who provides more size and skill to a roster that already had an abundance of riches, and Bryan Little can pick apart seams to find a sliver of offense.
But as is the case in every post-season, the top-six talent will be challenged for every inch of ice by opposing defenses. Thus, as often happens in the playoffs, nobodies will be asked to become somebodies, and Winnipeg can rely on contributions from its unheralded bottom-six skaters more than any other team. As of mid-March, the Jets had 14 players who had registered at least 20 points, tied for the most of any team in the league, with another pair, defenseman Ben Chiarot and pivot Adam Lowry, on the cusp. “It just shows the caliber of player we have in this dressing room and how the leadership group is able to lead us on the ice,” Tanev said. “Anybody up and down the lineup can score, and when we play the way we can play, it’s a one-through-four lineup that can go out there and score against the best.”
That’s a testament to the draft-and-development strategy employed by Winnipeg, which was one of the primary factors when we heralded the Jets as future Stanley Cup champions back in 2015. The significance of a strong four-line rotation – and how that can push them over the top – isn’t lost on the Jets. Scheifele described the pressure it can put on an opposing team’s top line, how it can wear them down or result in increased minutes for top players when the depth can’t keep up, and center Andrew Copp pointed to the defending Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals as the prime example of depth acting as the foundation for playoff success. “(Devante) Smith-Pelly scored so many big goals for them on their fourth line, (Jay) Beagle was taking big faceoffs,” Copp said. “We know it’s not just going to be one or two lines that’s going to carry us throughout the whole post-season. Everyone is going to have to step up at some point.”