It’s the era of parity, meaning every team seems to have a shot to win every playoff series – look at what the Nashville Predators did last year as the No. 16 overall seed – but not all series are created equal. On paper, the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets look like one of the biggest mismatches. It’s nothing against what the Wild accomplished this season – but they lost their most important player, workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter, to a broken fibula a couple weeks ago. And if there’s one team in the West you don’t want to face minus your best shutdown guy, it’s the high-flying Jets, who finished second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning in goals and second only to the Predators in overall points this season. Winnipeg screeches into the playoffs having won 11 of its final 12 games.
How They Win: The Wild are a fast and balanced team that relies heavily on its top line to create offense. They have an unspectacular but deep and efficient defense – when healthy. So they have to hope Jared Spurgeon (game-time decision) is ready for Game 1. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk continues to prove his re-emergence was no fluke. The renaissance of Eric Staal continues, and Jason Zucker keeps progressing into a top-shelf offensive player. That doesn’t necessarily make the Wild any more dangerous as a group, but it does give them a couple of game breakers that they have lacked in recent years. There were not many teams in the NHL that were better than the Wild after the calendar flipped to 2018.
How They Lose: For all the offense the top line generated, the Wild actually scored fewer goals this season than last because their secondary scoring has dried up. Injuries have robbed Zach Parise of his ability to be an offensive player of impact, and Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle have taken steps backward. With almost no offense coming from the bottom six, too much pressure is placed upon the top players. Too often, particularly on the road where they don’t get last change and had a losing record, the Wild are easy to shut down. Devan Dubnyk’s goaltending has been good but not great. The defense corps exhibited signs of slippage after losing Marco Scandella in the off-season – and that was with Suter and Spurgeon healthy. Without one or both, there’s tremendous pressure on Mathew Dumba and Jonas Brodin to handle major responsibility against a lethal offense.
How They Win: The Jets have a unique ability to overwhelm opponents with equal amounts of speed, skill and size. It’s almost unfair to deploy Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers across multiple lines. Whom do you key on? Years of franchise building has produced a group of players that is finally beginning to realize its potential and has put it all together this season. Led largely by the emergence of goalie Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets have been one of the most improved teams in the NHL defensively, but that would also be giving a short shrift to the defense corps, which has matured collectively. The blueline has cut down drastically on its glaring errors, the kind that too often last season resulted in a beleaguered goalie fishing the puck out of the back of the net. Led by a deadly power play and a top-10 penalty kill, coach Paul Maurice’s Jets have some of the best combined special teams in the NHL.
Five Things To Watch
1. Can Devan Dubnyk steal this thing? The Wild are clearly outgunned in this one, meaning they’ll need a goaltending miracle to have any chance in this series. Is Dubnyk up to the task? He’s been remarkably consistent in 3.5 regular seasons as Minnesota’s starting goalie. In the playoffs, though? His career save percentage is .903. He did hold his own quite well with a .925 mark in the first round last year, though.
2. How much does playoff experience matter – especially in net? Laine, Scheifele, Ehlers, Connor, Josh Morrissey…the list of Jets with zero career playoff games is longer than the list of guys who have played in the Big Dance. Most notable among the playoff newbies, of course, is Hellebuyck. He enjoyed a breakout season and will get some Vezina Trophy votes, but he struggled in 2016-17 under the pressure of expectations. Is he ready for the bright lights of the post-season?
3. The Patrik Laine Show. Does Laine, the game’s best goal scorer not named Alex Ovechkin, have an extra gear we don’t even know about yet? It’ll be fun to see. On the other hand, we never know which Laine is going to show up. Streaky Laine ripped off 16 goals in 12 games between February 16 and March 12. Cold Laine then notched just three goals in his final 16 games of the year. The results are there at the end of a regular season, but one of his cold streaks will hurt a lot more in a playoff series when time is of the essence.
4. A potential coming-out party for Dumba. It took Dumba a few years, but he’s now realizing the potential that made him 2012’s No. 7 overall pick. He logged 23:49 of ice per game this season. That’s a seven-minute increase from just two seasons ago, and Dumba set career highs with 14 goals and 50 points. He’s got a big shot from the point and plays a rambunctious physical game. But with no Suter, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single player league-wide with a tougher Round 1 assignment. Dumba will need to play 25 to 30 minutes a night against some of the best offensive players on the planet. If he succeeds, though, he’ll be heralded as a breakout star.
5. Bruce Boudreau’s demons. We know the Boudreau narrative by heart now. Among coaches with at least 250 games, he’s second only to Scotty Bowman in regular season points percentage. But in his nine post-seasons, he’s been ousted in Round 1 five times and Round 2 three times. In all but one of those early-round exits, he had a first-place team. Maybe this setup is just what he needs: zero pressure as a heavy underdog for a change.
THN Series Prediction: Jets in five.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES