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'We were close': Jets-Oilers historic playoff battles still resonate with alumni

·5 min read
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It's been more than three decades since the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers last met in the playoffs, but the circumstances remain eerily similar. 

The Jets 2.0 are once again running into the game's top player in Connor McDavid, 30-plus years after the original Jets experienced nearly annual nightmares against Wayne Gretzky and Co.

The Oilers and Jets met six times in the post-season between 1983 and 1990. Edmonton won each series and captured five Stanley Cups during the span. 

"I think it was bad timing on our part because we were playing against one of the best teams in hockey history. Edmonton was loaded up," said Dave Ellett, a former Jets defenceman who saw action in four iterations of the playoff saga. 

"But you know what? We were close. … We were in the games and we were hanging with them."

The Jets and Oilers will renew their rivalry on Wednesday when they kick off the first round of the North Division playoffs in Edmonton.

Many alumni will be watching — and cheering. 

"The Jets are due, we’re due, for a win," Ellett said. "Hopefully we can turn the tide and the Jets can start winning these series."

Winnipeg was always the underdog when it came up against Edmonton in the old Smythe Division playoffs in the 1980s and 1990. It's the same scenario this year with the second-place Oilers having finished nine points ahead of the third-place Jets in the all-Canadian North Division and Edmonton boasting the league's top two scorers in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Back in the 80s, the Oilers' roster boasted the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr. 

It was before the salary-cap era and the Jets had a lower budget, making it difficult to compete with top teams, said Thomas Steen. 

"During the regular season, we usually played pretty even with them but come playoff time, they had a little more than us," said Steen, who played centre for Winnipeg from 1981 to 1995. "But it was super exciting because it was competing at the highest level. Every little thing counted."

Both teams were offensive minded and it made for some wide-open, exciting hockey, Ellett said. 

"But at the same time, very physical, very emotional," he said.

The Oilers may have been stacked with superstars, but there were times when the Jets seemed poised to take a series. 

After Gretzky was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings, Winnipeg believed it had a real chance when it came up against Edmonton in the first round of the 1990 playoffs, Steen said. 

“We still felt that we were close," he said. "They still had the team intact except for Wayne. And when we got up 3-1 in (the series), that was a good night. That gave us a lot of hope that we could finally get past them.”

It was April 10, 1990, a first-round playoff tilt that went to double overtime before Ellett finally got a shot past Bill Ranford. The 4-3 win gave Winnipeg a 3-1 lead in the series, but the Oilers rallied to capture the series in seven games en route to the Cup.

Ellett remembers the crowd "going nuts" inside the old Winnipeg Arena after Game 4.

"It was bedlam," he said. "They didn’t leave, didn’t stop cheering for 15 or 20 minutes after.

"It was just raw emotion."

The city embraced the Jets during the playoff matchups against Edmonton in the 1980s, Ellett said. They showed their devotion by dressing in white, creating a "whiteout" not only inside the arena but on the streets, too. 

"You’d go around town and people are dressed in white, city buses are painted white. So there was a real atmosphere, not only in the rink but around the City of Winnipeg," Ellett said. 

Steen vividly recalls watching the fans support the team so fervently. 

"I remember the first time, it was like two hours before the game and it was super loud in the arena. We didn’t know what was going on," he said with a laugh. 

"But it carried us through the games. It was so much energy. It was incredibly high-tempo games in that environment.”

Of course, that's one thing that will be different this year as no fans are allowed inside Canadian arenas because of COVID-19 restrictions.

At least one player on the Jets' current roster is familiar with the historic matchups between Edmonton and Winnipeg. 

Paul Stastny said he recently read an article that listed the 1990 series as one of the best Canadian playoff matchups in history.

"Winnipeg came close, they came knocking. They’ve had good teams in the past," said the Jets centre. "There’s a great history here and we just want to add to it."

Stastny isn't looking to the past for inspiration for the looming contest, however. It was a different time with different players, he said. 

"But it’s fun. I think any time you see two Canadian teams play each other in the playoffs, it doesn’t happen often, it just kind of adds to the lore a little bit," he said. 

In 1996, the original Jets moved to Arizona, becoming the Phoenix Coyotes. It wasn't until 2011 that the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, marking the return of the Jets. 

The modern-day Jets have had some playoff success and are making their fourth post-season appearance in a row this year. 

Winnipeg finished its regular-season campaign third with a 30-23-3 record while Edmonton was 35-19-2. 

The Oilers had the edge on the Jets in a nine-game season series, winning seven matchups.

While McDavid and Draisaitl are two of the most dangerous players in the game, the Jets have their own firepower.

Mark Scheifele had 63 points (21 goals, 42 assists) and Kyle Connor rebounded from a late-season slump to put up six points (four goals, two assists) in his last three games of the regular season. 

"Edmonton has two very special players, but we have more guys that can score," Steen said, noting that in the '80s, it was often depth scoring that made a difference in playoff games

"You never know in the playoffs who’s going to get the chances. Everybody has to be ready to be a difference maker."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2021. 

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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