Next time you’re at Bell MTS Place — I know, I know, it’s likely going to be a bit longer yet — take a moment to look up to the rafters.
You’ll see banners honouring three Avco Cup championships in the 1970s, a pair of division titles for the Manitoba Moose in the early 2000s, an AHL conference championship, a top regular-season finish for the farm team, retired jersey numbers of ex-players Mike Keane and Jimmy Roy, and the organization’s Hall of Fame members including Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, Ab McDonald, Lars-Erik Sjöberg, Thomas Steen and Randy Carlyle.
It’s an impressive reminder of the past, tributes to great teams, players and memories that are a vital part of our rich hockey history, but you know what you won’t find up there? Anything at all regarding the achievements of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0.
To put it bluntly, they have yet to do anything banner-worthy in the decade since re-locating from Atlanta. Which brings me to the present, and a chance for something special to happen over the next few weeks, beginning tonight with a visit to the otherwise empty downtown barn from the free-falling Toronto Maple Leafs.
First-place in the all-Canadian division is there for the taking. Something no Jets team, this version or otherwise, has ever accomplished. And in a unique NHL season, with all seven north of the border clubs grouped together for what will likely be the one and only time, it would truly be something worth celebrating.
No, having the best regular-season record in the land of poutine and maple syrup doesn’t guarantee anything when the playoffs start in mid-May and the four qualifiers have the same clean slate, but a division title would be a crowning achievement nonetheless.
Winnipeg came close in 2017-18, finishing second in the Central Division (and second-overall in the NHL), just three points behind Nashville. They were even closer the next year, when the Predators edged them by a single point. Yes, there are banners reminding everyone of those accomplishments hanging at Bridgestone Arena.
Other than a second-place Jets finish in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, when they finished six points behind first-place Washington in the old Southeast, it’s been a whole lot of “meh” around here, save for a pair of playoff series victories. Fourth in 2011-12. Seventh in 2013-14. Fifth in 2014-15. Seventh in 2015-16. Fifth in 2016-17. And fifth in 2019-20.
Now, opportunity is knocking in the North. Toronto currently sits on top of the division, with 61 points and 10 games left. Winnipeg has 57 points with 11 games remaining, while Edmonton is at 56 points with 12 games left. It’s clear those clubs are finishing one-two-three in some order, as fourth-place Montreal has a better chance of getting caught by fifth-place Calgary or sixth-place Vancouver than moving up.
“The fight for first place is really important,” Jets coach Paul Maurice admitted Wednesday.
With Toronto in town for the next two tilts, followed by a pair of visits from Edmonton next week, Winnipeg is very much in control of its own fate. And the Jets would be wise to keep their eyes on the prize. Finishing first would bring plenty of other benefits that go beyond the banner and national bragging rights.
For one, Winnipeg would get the fourth-place club in the opening round of the playoffs, which is likely going to be a Habs team they’ve owned during the season, going 6-2-0. When you throw in the fact goaltender Carey Price and key forward Brendan Gallagher are both injured right now, this would seem to be the optimal match-up,
On the flip-side, they’d get to avoid facing Edmonton or Toronto until the second round, ensuring the only damage one of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews can do this spring will be on a golf course.
The Jets are just 2-5-0 against the Oilers this season, including four straight regulations losses in which they’ve only been able to score five combined goals. McDavid — referred to earlier this year by Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler as a “super freak” — has at least two points in every outing. And they have one of the best records in the NHL if you take away a sluggish first couple weeks of the season. In other words, stay far away as long as you can.
As for Toronto, they may have the most talented overall Canadian squad on paper in the eyes of many, but they sure aren’t playing that way on the ice. Losers of five straight, including back-to-back games against the Vancouver “COVID” Canucks, have them limping into town. Their goaltending is a mess, and they seem to be getting crushed by their own lofty expectations.
I’m still laughing at the scribe who Tweeted the following a couple weeks ago: “The Leafs have been basically gifted an automatic spot in the Final Four. If you’re ever gonna go for it, now’s the time.” For what it’s worth, Winnipeg is 3-2-2 against the Maple Leafs so far this year.
If I had to handicap the field, I’d give the edge to Edmonton winning the division. Dave Tippett had his offensively-gifted crew playing a defensively-sound game, Mike Smith has somehow turned back Father Time to shine in net, and the “super freak”, along with Leon Draisaitl, seem unstoppable, taking over games seemingly at will.
Toronto could always find a way back to its previous form, especially if they can start getting some saves again. They’re still dominating some of the underlying metrics such as possession and scoring chances, and they’ll get a likely boost with trade deadline addition Nick Foligno joining the lineup.
And don’t sleep on Winnipeg, a team that many pundits said would be in a battle to even make the post-season. It’s setting up quite the finish, a three-week sprint to the end of the regular-season which starts now.
“You can’t start the playoffs and get in a big hole usually, so you have to be feeling right about your game. I don’t know that you will take the team who has the best record in the last 10 games and say ‘They now have the best chance regardless of where they finished,’ but going in feeling positive is important, I believe,” said Maurice.
Seasons come and go, but banners hang forever. I can think of one rink in particular which has been waiting an awfully long time for a new addition to the rafters. A Stanley Cup championship remains the ultimate goal, but a division title would be a good start.
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