Streaking Jets prepare for playoff clash with star-studded Avalanche

WINNIPEG — Sean Monahan was walking his dog when a car drove past him, braked, backed up and stopped.

A mother and her son hopped out and approached the Winnipeg Jets forward, who was acquired in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 2.

“She said, ‘We just wanted to say hi and wish you luck and we’re looking forward to watching the playoffs,’” Monahan recalled with a smile.

He and his goldendoodle, Winston, often meet friendly, passionate fans. It’s one of the reasons Monahan is looking forward to Winnipeg’s first-round NHL playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche, which begins Sunday at Canada Life Centre.

The Jets (52-24-6) finished second in the Central Division and Western Conference, tying the franchise record for most wins in a season with the 2017-18 team. Their 110 points were the highest among Canadian clubs.

The finish earned Winnipeg home-ice advantage for the best-of-seven series with the division’s third-place Avalanche (50-25-7).

It’s the first time the teams will clash in the post-season. Both are trying to rebound from last year’s early playoff exits.

The Jets only grabbed the second conference wild-card spot in Game 81 last season and ended with a 46-33-3 record. They were bounced out of the playoffs in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights.

After winning the 2022 Stanley Cup, the Avalanche claimed top spot in the division last season but were upset by the Seattle Kraken in Game 7 of the opening round.

The Jets have rolled into this post-season on a high, finishing the regular season on an eight-game win streak. It included a 7-0 thumping of the Avalanche on April 13 that gave Winnipeg a sweep of their three-game season series.

Colorado was 4-4-2 in its final 10 contests.

Jets head coach Rick Bowness feels a different vibe around his team these days.

“I think we’re much better prepared going into this playoffs than we were last year,” Bowness said. “We’re a better team this year than we were at this time last year. There’s no question. We’re a more-committed team.”

The Jets had a few slumps, but a six-game losing skid was followed by the current win streak that tied a franchise record they set earlier in the campaign.

Players referenced a video session at the tail end of that skid as the match that ignited their turnaround.

"Instead of like guys being mad at themselves or mad at each other, it was more of a monkey off our back. ‘Oh, that's what we're doing wrong, and that's what we need to be doing differently,'" starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said.

"At least for me, that's what it felt like. And ever since that moment, it was all smooth sailing from there."

Hellebuyck gets his name on the league’s William M. Jennings Trophy as the netminder for the team that allowed the fewest goals (199) this season. The name of his backup, Laurent Brossoit, won’t be on it because he appeared in 23 games instead of the award’s 25-game minimum.

Hellebuyck played 60 games with a 37-19-4 record and five shutouts. The veteran is a favourite to win the Vezina Trophy, the league’s top-goalie award he claimed in 2020. He was a finalist last year and in 2018.

Brossoit was 15-5-2. His three shutouts included a 3-0 blanking against the division-leading Dallas Stars in the game before Hellebuyck’s 7-0 shutdown of Colorado.

All those accomplishments don’t mean the Jets are taking the Avalanche lightly. Far from it.

"Two tough teams that have been solid and high up in the standings really all year," Winnipeg veteran defenceman Brenden Dillon said.

"They’ve got two or three basically mega-superstars on that team that can really change the game on any shift."

Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon set a franchise record for points in a season with 140. Winger Mikko Rantanen registered 104 points, while defensive dynamo Cale Makar tallied 90 points.

Colorado’s netminders feature Alexander Georgiev and his league-best 38 wins (38-18-5) and backup Justus Annunen (8-4-1).

The Jets counter with a roster they believe has depth and four-line scoring.

Centre Mark Scheifele recorded a team-high 72 points and defenceman Josh Morrissey was next with 69. Winger Kyle Connor had 34 goals, followed by trade-deadline newcomer Tyler Toffoli with 33.

"We’re a confident team," Morrissey said. "We’ve got a good thing going and we know a lot of work is ahead of us, but I think our game’s in a good place heading into the playoffs"

He dismissed having an edge because of their regular-season results against Colorado.

"I really don’t put much stock into the season series and to the last game," Morrissey said. "Once the playoffs start, it’s first team to four (wins). So, it really doesn’t matter."

The deepest the Jets have been in the playoffs was the conference final in 2017-18, when they lost to Vegas in five games. They’ve won one playoff series since then, an opening-round sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in 2021. They were then swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the next round.


Regular-season series: 3-0, Winnipeg

Goals per game: Winnipeg, 3.16 (15th); Colorado, 3.68 (1st).

Top scorers: Winnipeg, Mark Scheifele, 72 points; Colorado, Nathan MacKinnon, 140.

Starting goaltender: Winnipeg, Connor Hellebuyck, 37-19-4, 2.39 GAA, .921 save percentage; Colorado, Alexander Georgiev, 38-18-5, 3.02 GAA, .897 save percentage.

Power play percentage: Winnipeg, 18.8 (22nd); Colorado, 24.5 (5th).

Penalty kill percentage: Winnipeg, 77.1 (21st); Colorado, 79.9 (12th).

The Big Stat: The Jets led the league in allowing the fewest goals at 199; Nathan MacKinnon was second in league points with 140.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press