Jets Lose Heartbreaker in Game 2

At the end of Saturday night’s Stanley Cup playoff game, the look of frustration and heartache on the face of Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice said it all.

Anaheim’s Jacob Silfverberg scored at 19:39 of the third period to give his Ducks a 2-1 victory over the hard-luck Jets in Game 2 of the Western Conference quarter-final series.

The Jets were all over Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen.

The Jets were all over Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen.

With the win, the Ducks took a 2-0 series lead, heading back to Winnipeg for Game 3 on Monday night.

This was a horrible game for the Jets to lose. Especially considering a couple, if not three, penalties should have been called against the Ducks late in the game but were either missed or overlooked. There was an obvious too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty that should have been called against Anaheim with about three minutes to play, but was ignored. Even on the play preceding Silfverberg’s winner, the goal scorer himself should have been called for holding Bryan Little’s stick, but that too was left without penalty.

On the night, the Jets were zero-for-four on the power play while Anaheim was one-for-four. Winnipeg has yet to convert a power play opportunity in this series.

The Jets opened the scoring at 15:43 of the second period when defenseman Adam Pardy, who was told four minutes before the game that he’d be suiting up, replacing Ben Chiarot, made a great move around the Ducks defense, went behind the net and wrapped the puck around, beating Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen.

Ondrej Pavelec made 37 saves and was the game's second star.

Ondrej Pavelec made 37 saves and was the game’s second star.

Mathieu Perreault and Adam Lowery drew the assists.

However, for the second time in the first two games, the Jets couldn’t hold a one-goal lead after 40 minutes.

In the third period, big Patrick Maroon deflected a Cam Fowler shot to score Anaheim’s first goal at 10:43 and then Silfverberg scored the winner, ripping a shot from point-blank range past a startled Pavelec.

It was a shocking ending to a hard-fought game that looked for most of the third period as if it was headed toward overtime – and maybe even an all-night session of overtime.

But with only 21 seconds left on the clock, the Jets gave up a late goal and lost a game they had a great chance to steal. As it is, Anaheim will head to Winnipeg for games on Monday and Wednesday with a 2-0 series lead.

The best player on the ice for Winnipeg on Saturday was clearly the netminder. Pavelec made 37 saves as Winnipeg was outshot 39-29. Anaheim had 17 shots in the first period (17-9) and 17 more in the third (17-8). In all, Pavelec kept Anaheim scoreless through the first 49 minutes. He stopped Maroon and Matt Beleskey on partial breakaways and made a stunning left-pad save on Andrew Cogliano in the third. It was an especially heartbreaking loss for the goaltender.

Adam Pardy scores on the wrap around.

Adam Pardy scores on the wrap around.

However, it should be noted that the big, fast Ducks forwards often had their own way in front of Pavelec and a number of the TV experts believed referees Mike Leggo and Jean Hebert missed an obvious goalie interference call that should have gone against Anaheim late in the third period.

Not surprisingly, the Jets didn’t get a lot of calls, but they did have four power plays and even with the man-advantage, they had very few scoring chances. If the power play doesn’t improve this week in Winnipeg it might be a short series. On the bright side, the Ducks failed to convert a 23-second two-man advantage early in the first period after back-to-back high-sticking penalties to Pardy and Tyler Myers. The Ducks had a 14-3 shot advantage to start the game.

Despite the loss, the Jets did hold Anaheim to only two goals, the first time in five meetings this season that the Jets have held Anaheim to fewer than four goals in a game. It’s a big step, but at some point the Jets offensive stars are going to have to get going. Winnipeg has scored only three goals in two games in this series.

The Jets returned home early on Sunday morning and will prepare for a crucial Game 3 on Monday. Game time is 8 p.m. Game 4 will go Wednesday, April 22 at MTS Centre at 8:30 p.m. Game 5, if necessary is back in Anaheim, Game 6 is in Winnipeg and Game 7 is in Anaheim. All the games can be seen on Sportsnet.



Ducks Draw First Blood, Beat Jets 4-2

The Winnipeg Jets still haven’t solved the mystery of the Anaheim Ducks’ big men.

On Thursday night (and early Friday morning in Winnipeg), first star Corey Perry had two goals and two assists while second star Ryan Getzlaf had a goal and two assists as the Ducks came back from a 2-1 deficit after 40 minutes to beat the Jets 4-2.

Adam Lowry celebrates his first playoff goal.

Adam Lowry celebrates his first playoff goal.

With the win, the Ducks drew first blood in the opening round series of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s the second time the Thrashers/Jets franchise has reached the post-season and the teams – whether Winnipeg or Atlanta – have yet to win a game.

This one, however, was a rare one for Winnipeg. The Jets were 30-2-6 this season when leading after two periods, but on Thursday night in Anaheim, the Ducks simply had too much size and skill – and way too much Perry and Getzlaf.

“It was definitely physical,” said Jets forward Drew Stafford during his televised post-game news conference. “It was a tough hard-fought battle. We got into a little penalty trouble and we couldn’t overcome it. Next game we have to bring that physical play, but we have to do it between the whistles. We have to re-group and still make sure we bring that physical play.”

Sami Vatanen opened the scoring for Anaheim at 1:57 of the first period, but the Jets battled right back and scored at 2:46 as rookie Adam Lowry, playing in his first Stanley Cup playoff game, redirected a pass from Jacob Trouba and gave the Jets some early life.

This game was intense.

This game was intense.

In the second period, Drew Stafford scored the only goal at the five-minute mark and Winnipeg led 2-1 after two periods.

But in the third, it was all Perry and Getzlaf. The Ducks two stars completely took over the game. Perry scored at 1:09 and then tallied the winner on a beautiful individual effort at 13:21. That goal had to be reviewed, but the puck clearly went across the line.

To the Jets credit, they didn’t quit and actually started taking the play to the Ducks late in the frame, but a penalty to Michael Frolik for boarding at 16:09 was the dagger. Getzlaf scored on the power play and Anaheim had a 4-2 victory.

The Jets did get a late power play, but couldn’t beat Frederik Andersen and the Ducks took a 1-0 series lead.

Once again, the Jets couldn’t hold to the Ducks to fewer than four goals. In three games during the regular season, the Ducks won 4-3 in overtime in Winnipeg on Dec. 7, and then won 4-1 in Winnipeg on Dec. 13. Then on Jan. 11, the Ducks beat the Jets 5-4 in a shootout in Anaheim. While none of the goals on Thursday night could be blamed on Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg didn’t get the monster saves you often require to win in the playoffs.

In the end, Anaheim outshot Winnipeg 33-27, but it was an even 10-10 in the third period, a period that the scoresheet says Anaheim dominated.

Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

On the evening, Winnipeg was zero-for-three on the power play while Anaheim was two-for-three with a shorthanded goal. Obviously, the Jets have some work to do on special teams. Both Perry and Getzlaf scored power play goals in the third, but Perry’s second goal of the night – and the period – came off a neutral ice turnover by Blake Wheeler and was scored shorthanded.

If there is one thing head coach Paul Maurice knows, it’s that his Jets can be better — especially late in the game.

Game 2 in the series goes Saturday night at the Honda Centre in Anaheim. The first puck will be dropped at 9:30 CDT.



The Upstart Winnipeg Jets: As Good a Chance as Any

The best thing about the 2015 National Hockey League post-season is the randomness of it all.

This year’s Stanley Cup playoffs – for the first time in my lifetime – has no clear-cut favorite. Sure, Anaheim and the Rangers and Montreal and St. Louis were pretty good this season, but if you had $100 in your hand and were standing in front of the window at the Mirage Sportsbook, on which team would you lay your cash?

This guy will have to be really, really good. Or at least better than he was this season against Anaheim.

This guy will have to be really, really good. Or at least better than he was this season against Anaheim.

Tough choice, isn’t it? Frankly, the way the NHL season went, I wouldn’t want to bet against the Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning or Minnesota Wild.

In fact, I can’t see betting against anybody. If there was ever a time when a Stanley Cup tournament was wide open, this is that time. There is no Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers or Detroit Red Wings dynasty anymore. The defending champion Los Angeles Kings didn’t even qualify. The team with the best recent history is Chicago because they’ve won two Cups since 2010. That’s hardly what dynastic prohibitive favorites are made of.

So when the Jets start tonight, don’t be surprised if the Wild and Senators or Jets and Islanders are still standing when June rolls around.

Winnipeg’s beloved Jets will start their best-of-seven opening round marathon against the Anaheim Ducks in Southern California on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. CST. And while the Jets franchise might not have made the playoffs until now, there are 14 players on the roster with playoff experience and three – Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Michael Frolik – have Stanley Cup rings. Ladd has two (Carolina 2006 and Chicago 2010).

Regardless of what happens in a week or so, this series has the feel of a Western Conference final, especially if you consider that the Jets were one of best teams in the NHL in the final month and a half of the season and the Ducks (along with the Blues) might have the best personnel in the West. Anaheim finished the season 51-24-7, first in the Pacific Division while Winnipeg was 43-26-13, the second Wild Card but the team that finished seventh overall in the Conference. These two teams finished 10 points apart in the standings and while Anaheim won all three games between the two clubs, a couple of the outcomes were close.

This series will be tough. Little takes down Silfverberg.

This series will be tough. Little takes down Silfverberg.

Anaheim won 4-3 in overtime in Winnipeg on Dec. 7 and then won 4-1 in Winnipeg Dec. 13. Then on Jan. 11, the Ducks beat the Jets 5-4 in a shootout in Anaheim. The Ducks have been superior all year, but not by much.

Andrew Ladd with two goals and an assist, Dustin Byfuglien with a goal and two assists and Mathieu Perreault with three assists led the Jets with three points each against the Ducks this season, while Ondrej Pavelec went 0-0-2 against Anaheim.

Rickard Rakell paced Anaheim with four goals and six points while Ducks goaltender Frederik Anderson played in all three games, going a perfect 3-0-0 while allowing eight goals. The Jets have added a number of players since the last time they played Anaheim. It will be the first game as members of the Jets for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak. This is not the same Jets team that lost three times to the Ducks this season.

The Jets aggressive forecheck did not stop the Ducks from scoring this season and in all three meetings, the Jets goaltending was suspect. That’s not the way the Jets played down the stretch.

If Winnipeg expects to win this series, it will have to find a way to shut down Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and while that might be easier said than done, the fact that the Jets are much bigger and heavier than they were in January will give Winnipeg a bit of an edge.

The experts say it will be intense in front of this guy.

The experts say it will be intense in front of this guy.

For Winnipeg, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec must step up (Pavelec produced three straight shutouts in the final week to get the Jets into the post-season) and the Jets Top 7 forwards – Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Mark Scheifele, Drew Stafford, Mathieu Perreault and Michael Frolik – must be at their best.

Still, to their credit, the Ducks can score, but overall, they only scored six more goals than the Jets this season.

The key for both teams will be their size and strength. This, I will guarantee: Dustin Byfuglien will be Public Enemy No. 1 in Southern California by the end of this weekend. He can hit, he likes to hit and he has a nasty temper. He will be running at people and the Ducks and their fans will feel his presence.

Defensively, any group led by Francois Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, James Wisniewski and Sami Vatanen will be good. These guys can skate, move the puck quickly, have big shots and can generate offense from the back end. Still, the Jets are a handful. Winnipeg has big forwards who are certainly not afraid. If Winnipeg can bang these guys, especially the 5-foot-10 Vatanen and the 5-foot-11 (32-year-old) Wisniewski

Still, there is little doubt that head coach Paul Maurice believes in his players and the Jets players obviously believe in themselves. However, even with a marvelous collection of shooters, the Jets will need to outscore a team the features Perry, Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Jacob Silfverberg, Rickard Rakell and Kyle Palmieri (who scored a magnificent overtime winner in Winnipeg back in December).

Rickard Rakell led all Ducks scorers against Winnipeg this season.

Rickard Rakell led all Ducks scorers against Winnipeg this season.

Fortunately, the Jets defensive unit is rock solid and the goaltending has been frighteningly good, and that if that keeps up – three shutouts in a row and one goal in 245 minutes down the stretch — so the Jets might not need to score very much.

Not many so-called hockey experts are picking the Jets to win this one. Although, most say that if the Jets do survive, they could easily become Western Conference champions.

And what the heck? With great goaltending comes playoff miracles. If Pavelec continues to play the way he did last week, he should run for Premier. He’s already a lot more popular than Greg Selinger will ever be. In the meantime, the Jets mantra should be check, check, check and check some more. If they do, there is no telling what might happen.

The first home game for the Jets is Monday April 20, at 8:30 p.m. CDT (what a stupid time for a home game in Winnipeg). I suspect the MTS Centre will be rockin’.



Cleveland Browns New Uniforms: New Unis, Same Lousy Team

It hasn’t been a great off-season for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Quarterback Johnny Manziel went into rehab and the GM was suspended four games for texting the coach during a game. Oh well, the owner didn’t go to jail for price fixing gasoline so there is always a silver lining.

In order to give their beleaguered fans something to cheer about, the club unveiled their new uniforms this week. The fans seemed to love them.

Nearly 3,000 Browns supporters — a majority of whom were season-ticket holders — were invited to the Cleveland Convention Center to pose for pictures with current and past players.

So the Browns have a new motto: “New uniforms, same lousy team”

The Browns new uniforms.

The Browns new uniforms.



It Will Be All About Pavs When the Playoffs Start

It wasn’t long ago when Ondrej Pavelec might have been considered the Winnipeg Jets’ No. 2 goaltender.

There was definitely a stretch from mid-December until early March when Michael Hutchinson had taken the reins.

First he beat the Wild 2-0.

First he beat the Wild 2-0.

However, down the stretch, when it mattered, Pavs was The Man!

And yesterday, the Natonal Hockey League acknowledged that truth once again.

The NHL named Pavelec its Second Star of the Week, for the final week of the NHL season. It was the second time this season and the second time in less than a months that Pavelec was recognized by the league for his outstanding play. He was named the First Star of the Week for the week ending March 22.

Pavelec did not allow a goal in the three games he played last week as he led the Jets to the team’s best finish ever and a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s the first time the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise has reached the playoffs since 2007.

During the week, a week in which he was battling the flu, Pavelec stopped all 83 shots he faced in recording three consecutive shutouts (how that gets him “Second” Star and not “First” is anybody’s guess). He had a 32-save shutout on April 6 in what he called “one of the toughest building in the league to play in,” at Minnesota. The Jets won that game 2-0.

then he beat the Blues 1-0.

then he beat the Blues 1-0.

He then became the first goalie in Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise history to record back-to-back shutouts on consecutive nights with a 31-save effort in blanking the St. Louis Blues 1-0. He completed his week with a 21-save shutout against the Colorado Avalanche on April 9, but the Jets dropped a 1-0 shootout decision to Patrick Roy’s Avs.

As a result of his play last week, he will enter the post-season on shutout streak of 187 minutes and five seconds. He completed the week with a 0.00 goals against average and a 1.000 save percentage.

Overall this season, Pavelec had his best year as an NHL netminder. That’s in no small way to an incredible finish. He completed the 2014-15 season with a record of 22-16-8 with career bests in save percentage (.920), goals against average (2.28), and shutouts (five). His 16 career shutouts became a franchise record this season. He is already the franchise leader in games played (338) and wins (135).

Then he shut out the Avs for 65 minutes.

Then he shut out the Avs for 65 minutes.

“I think we played good games as a team,” said Pavelec earlier this week, trying to re-direct the credit to his teammates. “In the two games we won, we scored the first goal and that was big. I was able to see the puck. The guys cleaned the front of the net and let me see the puck. It was a great team effort.

“Lately I think we’ve been good on how we start the game. Every game is kind of different. Against Rangers (last weekend) it was back and forth but last week we took the lead and we played really well defensively.”

During the wins over Minnesota and St. Louis and in the 0-0 tie in Colorado, it was almost a brawl in front of Pavelec’s crease. Teams don’t give goaltenders much room these days.

“That’s the style those teams play,” said Pavelec. “That’s what those teams do and they’re pretty good at it. That’s the way the NHL is: Lots of tough play in front of the net, lots of scrambles. And a lot of point shots with big guys in front of the net. That’s NHL hockey today.

“It’s always a big battle in front of the net. It’s the NHL style. But our guys have been handling it really well. They’ve been cleaning out the front of the net and giving me a good view.”

That’s exactly what they’ll need to do this week when the Stanley Cup playoffs open in Anaheim. Thursday night, 9:30 on Sportsnet.



The Stanley Cup Playoffs: The First Round is The Best Round

Right after the lost season of 2004-05, Commissioner Gary Bettman hinted that he believed parity was right around the corner in the National Hockey League.

At the time, the Detroit Red Wings were dominating the regular season, but the commissioner truly believed that the league’s talent level would eventually be distributed almost evenly throughout every member club. Most insiders thought he was dreaming and while the Toronto Maple Leafs (a team that fired its GM and coaching staff on Sunday morning), Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres remain consistently near the bottom of the loop, it’s apparent that any season, any team can reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Hey, there are five Canadian teams (out of seven) in the playoffs this spring, at a time when the Canadian dollar has nearly collapsed in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Maybe the salary cap does create parity.

Let’s look at recent history. In 2011-12, upstarts Phoenix (now Arizona), Florida and Nashville made the playoffs. After the lockout shortened season of 2012-13, Columbus, Dallas and Minnesota claimed post-season berths and as we head toward the 2014-15 playoffs with Winnipeg, Calgary, the Islanders and Ottawa in and Boston, Dallas, Colorado, Columbus and San Jose out, it’s fair to say that in any given season, any team can reach the Big Dance – and any other team can be turned away at the door.

After all, last year at this time, the Boston Bruins were the No. 1-seeded team in the East. The Bruins finished the year with 117 points and won the President’s Trophy. This year, the Bruins were ninth in the East with 96 points and are now getting together to clean out their lockers.

That means, of course, that predictions are pretty much worthless at this time of year. Oh, don’t worry, we are going to be idiots and try to predict the outcome of all eight first-round series, but it’s hard to imagine we could possibly get all eight of those prognostications correct. Think about it. There is parity in the NHL. While the New York Rangers won the President’s Trophy and had a tremendous season, they will head into the playoffs only 15 points better than the team they’ll face in the opening round – the eighth-place team in the East – the Pittsburgh Penguins. Anaheim, a prohibitive favorite in the West, was only 10 points better than its opponent, the seventh-place Winnipeg Jets.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is always the best,” said New York Rangers professional scout, Tom Thompson. “You have teams that finished high in the standings expecting to win against teams that were lucky to make the playoffs and now have nothing to lose. The first round is always the toughest, the fastest, the closest and the most exciting. The first round is where the upsets happen. This is always hockey at its very best.”

We’ll start from East and work our way West. The 2015 Stanley Cup Tournament begins on Wednesday, April 15 with 16 teams. In two months, only one will be standing:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Series A: Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, First in Atlantic) vs. Ottawa Senators (42-26-13, First Wild Card)

Ottawa went 23-4-4 down the stretch to reach the playoffs while the Canadiens rode the brilliance of NHL MVP favorite Carey Price to a 50-win season. So will it be the consistency of the Habs or the white-hot streakiness of the emotional Sens? Sens goalie Andrew Hammond and rookie rightwinger Mark Stone came in and turned the Senators around after the firing of head coach Paul MacLean. Meanwhile, in Montreal, team leader Max Pacioretty (37 goals this season) and young stars Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher make the Habs a formidable offensive force. The Canadiens also have a tremendous defensive pairing with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, but Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson is one of the finest D-men in the game. This will be an outstanding All-Canadian series.

Players to Watch: Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban, Montreal; Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson, Ottawa.

Season Series: Senators won 3-1.

Our Choice: Ottawa in six games.

Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning by James Carey Lauder.

Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning by James Carey Lauder.

Series B: Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8, Second in Atlantic) vs. Detroit Red Wings
 (43-25-14, Third in Atlantic)

The Tampa Bay Lightning are led by high-scoring Steven Stamkos (43 goals in all 82 games this season), but they are not a one-man show. They also have three emerging stars: Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. In fact, all three were so good this season, that one or two of them might get a Hart Trophy vote. Fact is, it might be the best young line in hockey. The Red Wings are led by two aging superstars – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – but the emergence of young Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm have made the Red Wings a tough team to beat. Tampa’s two best players might be defensemen Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman. Detroit is led on the back end by Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. In net, the Lightning have 39-win Ben Bishop while Detroit will go with either Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek. Neither team has a great power play.

Players to Watch: Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit; Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay.

Season Series: Lightning won 3-1

Our Choice: Tampa in six games.

Sidney Crosby by Jeff Miller.

Sidney Crosby by Jeff Miller.

Series C: New York Rangers (53-22-7, First in Metropolitan) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (43-27-12, Second Wild Card)

The Rangers have one thing nobody else has: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Of course, to be fair, when Lundqvist missed 25 games with a vascular problem, the Rangers went 18-4-3 with Cam Talbot and Mackenzie Skapski in net. Now, however, with Lundqvist back, the Rangers have themselves a President’s Trophy and a good shot at the Cup. The Penguins, meanwhile, are led by Sidney Crosby, (third in NHL scoring with 84 points), and the oft-injured Evgeni Malkin. The Rangers offense will come from Rick Nash (42 goals), Marty St. Louis, Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Nash has eaten the Penguins alive this season. Last spring, the Rangers rallied from 3-1 down against the Penguins to win the best-of-seven Eastern Conference second round series in seven games. This year, New York defeated Pittsburgh 5-0 on Nov. 11 and 5-2 on Jan. 18. In between those two games was a 3-2 shootout win by the Penguins on Nov. 15 and a 4-3 overtime win by the Rangers on Dec. 8. The Penguins didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final game of the season. The Rangers almost coasted to the regular season title.

Players to Watch: Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers; Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh.

Season Series: Rangers won 3-1

Our Choice: Rangers in five.

Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

Series D: Washington Capitals (45-26-11, Second in Metropolitan) vs. New York Islanders (47-28-7, Third in Metropolitan)

This is a toss-up. Both teams had 101 points and both teams tied in ROW with 40. Washington is thought of an offensive-minded team, but the Islanders outscored the Caps 252-242 this season. The Islanders have a terrific defense led by Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic, but Washington allowed fewer goals 203-230. While everyone will be watching Alexander Ovechkin (53 goals and fourth in scoring with 81 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (sixth in scoring with 78 points), the Islanders had the No. 2 scorer in the league in John Tavares (38 goals and 86 points). These two teams aren’t what they seem, but what they will be is close. Flip a coin.

Players to Watch: Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington; John Tavares and Nick Leddy, NY Islanders.

Season Series: Tied 2-2

Our Choice: Washington in seven games.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Jason Pominville photo by Jeff Miller.

Jason Pominville photo by Jeff Miller.

Series E: St. Louis Blues (51-24-7, First in Central) vs. Minnesota Wild (46-28-8, First Wild Card)

This is a series between a team that finished second in the West and a team that finished sixth, and yet the season series was tied 2-2 and there were only nine points separating them. St. Louis is led by an outstanding offense that includes T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and David Backes, a crew that scored between 55 and 73 points. Tarasenko had 37 goals while Steen (24), Schwartz (28) and Backes (26) each scored at least 24. The Blues are the highest-scoring Western Conference team in the playoffs. Minnesota, meanwhile, was dead in the water in January. They were 12th and done. Then GM Chuck Fletcher acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk and everything changed. The Wild went 28-9-3 after Dubnyk arrived and suddenly, this 12th-place team was sixth and had a legitimate chance to make some late-April noise.

Players to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, St. Louis; Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Minnesota.

Season Series: Tied 2-2

Our Choice: St. Louis in six games.

Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks by James Carey Lauder.

Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks by James Carey Lauder.

Series F: Nashville Predators (47-25-10, Second in Central) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, Third in Central)

When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they started their run by eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games. They’d certainly love to do it again. The Hawks are in the playoffs for the seventh straight year but they will start the playoffs without their scoring star Patrick Kane (broken collarbone). However, after Kane was injured, captain Jonathan Toews took the team on his shoulders and carried them to 102 points and the playoffs. The key to the Hawks is its brilliant defense, led by Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Nashville is blessed with one of the best goalies in the game, Pekka Rinne and he’s blessed with an outstanding defense led by Shea Weber, Roman Josi and young Seth Jones. Amazingly, Nashville’s top forwards were rookie Filip Forsberg and the aging Mike Ribeiro. Who woulda thought?

Players to Watch: Shea Weber and Filip Forsberg, Nashville; Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, Chicago.

Season Series: Blackhawks won 3-1

Our Choice: Chicago in five games.

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets.

Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets.

Series G: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, First in Pacific) vs. Winnipeg Jets (43-26-13, Second Wild Card)

These two teams finished 10 points apart in the standings and while Anaheim won all three games between the two clubs, a couple of the outcomes were close. Anaheim won 4-3 in overtime in Winnipeg on Dec. 7 and then won 4-1 in Winnipeg Dec. 13. Then on Jan. 11, the Ducks beat the Jets 5-4 in a shootout in Anaheim. The Ducks have been superior all year, but not by much. The Jets aggressive forecheck did not stop the Ducks from scoring this season and in all three meetings, the Jets goaltending was suspect. If Winnipeg expects to win this series, it will have to find a way to shut down Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and that might be easier said than done. For Winnipeg, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec must step up (Pavelec produced three straight shutouts in the final week to get the Jets into the post-season) and the Jets Top 7 forwards – Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Mark Scheifele, Drew Stafford, Mathieu Perreault and Michael Frolik – must be at their best. This series is Anaheim’s to lose.

Players to Watch: Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, Winnipeg; Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim.

Season Series: Ducks won 3-0.

Our Choice: Winnipeg in five games.

Johnny Gaudreau.

Johnny Gaudreau.

Series H: Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5, Second in Pacific) vs. Calgary Flames (45-30-7, Third in Pacific)

The Pacific Division was relatively weak this season, but that doesn’t mean a series between two Pacific teams separated by only four points all year won’t be spirited. In fact, the Flames and Canucks hate each other and we’ll see that in spades this week. Not surprisingly, the last three times the Flames and Canucks have met in the playoffs, the winner of the series eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final. Calgary is led by the big line with veteran Jiri Hudler, rookie Johnny Gaudreau and 20-year-old centre Sean Monahan. For Vancouver, it’s all about the Sedins, Henrik and Daniel, along with a number of unheralded, but-hardworking forwards – Radim Vrbata (30 goals playing with the Sedins), Alexandre Burrows, Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett, Bo Horvat, Chris Higgins and Nick Bonino. On defense, the Canucks are led by Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Luca Sbisa, Chris Tanev and Yannick Weber. Calgary lost its best defenseman, Mark Giordano, for the season with a biceps injury, so Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and Deryk Engelland will have to be at their best. The Flames have played better than their roster all season long. They’ll have to keep it up this April.

Players to Watch: Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Vancouver; Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler, Calgary.

Season Series: Tied at 2-2.

Our Choice: Vancouver in seven games.



Jets and Flames Rest Top Players, Jets Coast to a 5-1 Win

Winnipeg Jets fans celebrated early on Saturday afternoon. Then, after two quiet periods, they celebrated again.

The jam-packed crowd at MTS Centre gave their playoff-bound Jets a long, loud standing ovation to start the game. Then they watched two teams score in the opening minute of play Then they settled in for a long afternoon of missed passes and neutral-zone turnovers.

In the end, the Jets were simply too good – inasmuch as they had fewer American Hockey League players in their lineup as Calgary – as the home side whipped the Flames 5-1. Winnipeg scored four unanswered goals in the third period to put it away.

Paul Maurice, coaching the hell out of this team.

Paul Maurice, coaching the hell out of this team. (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

“For both teams that was a difficult game to play,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Not a lot of physicality in the game, a lot of over-handling the puck. It was a good game for a lot of guys who hadn’t been in a game for a long time. You want to clinch (a playoff spot) earlier, but you don’t want to play too many games like that.”

With the win, the Jets added to a list of milestones reached this season. The Jets set the franchise record for points in a season with 99 (previous: 97 in 2006-07). They also tied the franchise record for most wins in a season with 43 (previous: 43 in 2006-07). And the Jets also set the franchise record for fewest goals allowed with only 210. (previous: 237 in 2013-14).

The first two goals, both scored within a minute of the opening faceoff were classic AHL goals – as in, accidental.

The Flames scored at the 33-second mark as Swan River rookie Michael Ferland found a loose puck in front of Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson and guided it home. It was Ferland’s second NHL goal in a rink in which he’d played a number of times with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

The Jets scored 10 seconds later as Flames goalie Joni Ortio (no, not Joni Mitchell, Joni Ortio) mishandled a shot by Drew Stafford and had the puck bounce over his head, off his back and into the net.

Michael Hutchinson won the final game of the season as Ondrej Pavelec had the night off (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Michael Hutchinson won the final game of the season as Ondrej Pavelec had the night off (Photo by Jeff Miller)

After that it was mostly bouncing pucks, dumps without the chase and limited scoring chances until Mark Scheifele and Michael Frolik combined to score a real NHL goal. Before the first minute in the third period had ticked by, Scheifele laid a perfect pass onto Frolik’s stick and he ripped a high, hard one into a gaping hole in the Flames net for his 19th of the year. That was probably enough but the Jets weren’t done.

A few minutes later Lee Stempniak scored his 15th to put it away and a few seconds after that, Adam Lowry scored his 11th unassisted. Matt Halischuk wrapped up the scoring with his third of the year at 18:59 of the third and, by then, the Jets were officially getting ready for the post-season.

“It’s Christmas for coaches (being back in the playoffs),” said Maurice. “It’s going to be a challenge for the coaches. “When you get into the playoffs, you just enjoy the energy. The guys are going to be wired, it’s just a lot of fun.”

Sunday’s game was one of those meaningless end-of-season games with both teams headed to the playoffs after long, grinding campaigns. Essentially, the 15,004 fans at MTS Centre saw an American Hockey League game at NHL prices.

Swan River's Michael Ferland played in front of family and friends and scored his second NHL goal (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Swan River’s Michael Ferland (79) played in front of family and friends and scored his second NHL goal (Photo by Jeff Miller)

The Flames did not dress Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, T.J Brodie, Johnny Gaudreau, Lance Bouma, David Jones, Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler, Paul Byron, Raphael Diaz or Karri Ramo. Not all were injured, obviously.

The Jets sat out Paul Postma. Mark Stuart, Jacob Trouba, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Myers, Eric O’Dell, Mathieu Perreault or Ondrej Pavelec. Again, not all of them were injured.

It was thought that some of the players wearing Flames uniforms had been in witness protection (as recently as yesterday): Emile Poirier, Brett Kulak, John Ramage, Tyler Wotherspoon (isn’t he a speed skater?), Sam Bennett and Corey Potter have not played enough games with the Flames (combined) to account for an entire NHL season.

It did give Winnipeg fans a chance to see young Andrew Copp and it gave Matt Halischuk, Keaton Ellerby, TJ Galiardi and Anthony Peluso a chance to get back into an NHL game. Copp brought the crowd to its feet when he picked up his first NHL point, an assist, on Stempniak’s goal in the third.

The Flames outshot the Jets 25-22, but Michael Hutchinson earned the win and improved to 21-10-5 in this, his rookie campaign. The Jets were zero-for-two on the power play while the Flames were zero-for-four.

So now the Jets head to the post-season for the first time since the team moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. For Maurice, this is the best part of the job.

Matt Halischuk scored his third goal of the season (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Matt Halischuk scored his third goal of the season (Photo by Jeff Miller)

“I enjoy coming to the rink,” said Maurice. “I enjoy the games – maybe not this game – but it’s just really enjoyable being around these guys. It’s exciting.

“Right now, the first thing we’re going to do is assess the schedule. We’ll take (Sunday) off, because they won’t have too many chances to take days off between now and whenever the playoffs end. We’ll look at video and assess how we’re going approach the opposition (whether it’s St. Louis or Anaheim).

“But before it starts, to get 99 points in a really tough Western Conference, I’m just really proud of the effort.”



Winnipeg Set for First Trip to the Playoffs

Scouts all over the National Hockey League say one thing about the Winnipeg Jets: “Nobody wants to play against these guys.”

With a hard-working system that combines a hard-nosed, aggressive forecheck with a patient chip-it-in, chip-it-out approach to the game, the Jets are a team that might not get a lot of chances, but they certainly don’t give up very many. It also doesn’t hurt that goaltender Ondrej Pavalec is white hot. This is the one team that can beat any other team in the NHL and have proved it, on more than one occasion, this past season.

Winnipeg loves the Jets (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

Winnipeg loves the Jets (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

With one game remaining, Saturday afternoon against the Calgary Flames, the Jets are locked into the second wild card spot in the West and while all eight Western Conference teams have been set for the playoffs, the pairings have not.

The Jets will play the higher finisher of the two division champions after the 2014-15 season comes to an end on Saturday. Amazingly, all 30 teams play on Saturday. Based on what we already know, it’s likely the Jets will face Anaheim in the opening round.

On Thursday, the St. Louis Blues clinched first place in the Central Division with a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, and with Minnesota’s 4-2 win over Nashville. The Blues and the Pacific Division champion Ducks each have 107 points; the Ducks have the tiebreaker edge with 41 regulation/overtime wins to 40 for the Blues.

Nashville will finish second in the Central. The third-place Blackhawks are two points ahead of the Wild. The Vancouver Canucks, currently second in the Pacific Division, will play Calgary in the first round. The Canucks lead the Flames by two points and can assure themselves of the home-ice advantage in their series by earning one point in their season finale against the Edmonton Oilers.

The Jets won three of four and got seven of eight points without Big Buff (Photo by Jeff Miller)

The Jets won three of four and got seven of eight points without Big Buff (Photo by Jeff Miller)

Calgary, of course, finishes the season at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, Saturday at 2 p.m. The Stanley Cup Playoffs being April 15.

Between now and next Wednesday, Jets head coach Paul Maurice will have to come to terms with a couple of scenarios:

  1. After his defense played brilliantly down the stretch for four games without Toby Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien, does he disrupt something that is going well, just to get some star players back into the lineup. He could always make Byfuglien a forward again.
  1. Byfuglien at forward might be his best alternative if Mathieu Perreault, who was injured on Thursday night, can’t answer the bell come next week.

“There have been two or three times over the course of the year, especially lately, when we’ve faced some pretty significant adversity,” said head coach Paul Maurice, as he reflected on his team’s playoff run during his televised post-game news conference on Thursday.

“We had Byfuglien and Little go down for such a long time and that hurt us and Buff’s suspension, but we lost those two games last week and it was just so painful… the thought that that group could work as hard as it did and overcome as much as it did and the idea that you wouldn’t get the payoff for it just seemed wrong.

“It’s been a pleasure for me to work behind the bench. It’s been a really enjoyable year to go to the rink every day because they were going to work as hard as they could. I’m happy for them, they earned it. They worked so hard and did all the right things. They hung in there when it was dark and ugly and huddled through injuries and played in the toughest division in hockey… they earned it I’m happy for them.

Is this the NHL's coach of the year? (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

Is this the NHL’s coach of the year? (Photo by James Carey Lauder)



Flames Help Jets Reach the Playoffs, Pavelec Brilliant

The Winnipeg Jets might have been shootout losers in Denver on Thursday night, but for the first time since arriving in Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets are headed to the post-season.

And they should send the Calgary Flames a thank you card.

Ondrej Pavalec was brilliant again: three straight shutouts.

Ondrej Pavalec was brilliant again: three straight shutouts.

The Jets lost 1-0 in a shootout to the Colorado Avalanche as Avs goalie Reto Berra not only stopped 40 shots, but improved to 6-0 in shootouts this season. Because the Jets didn’t win, they needed help from the Calgary Flames.

And they got it.

At the Saddledome, Jiri Hudler had two goals and an assist as he led the Flames to a 3-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, eliminating L.A. from the post-season and guaranteeing the Jets a shot at the 2015 Stanley Cup.

The Jets have one game remaining in the regular season – Saturday at MTS Centre against the Flames. Kind of fitting.

In Denver on Thursday, Avs goalie Reto Berra was the story. The 28-year-old journeyman Swiss netminder foiled the Jets at every turn as Winnipeg outshot the Avalanche 40-21, but nothing got past Berra.

Blake Wheeler will have nightmares. He had Berra beaten in the dying seconds of regulation time, but Berra manager to keep a rebound out of the net. Then Wheeler had Berra beaten again in the dying seconds of overtime, but somehow the Colorado goaltender got a leg across to deflect away a perfect wrap-around opportunity.

Berra stops Wheeler in the shootout.

Berra stops Wheeler in the shootout.

Then in the shootout, Berra stopped both Wheeler and Andrew Ladd while Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene beat Ondrej Pavelec and that’s how it ended.

But don’t knock Pavelec. He was magnificent and currently has three straight road shutouts to his credit. He beat Minnesota 2-0 in St. Paul on Monday, then beat the Blues 1-0 in St. Louis on Tuesday and then played 65 minutes without allowing a goal to the Avalanche in Denver. It was a virtuoso performance at the exact time of the season when his team needed it most.

Meanwhile, there was some bad news on Thursday night. Jets leftwinger Mathieu Perreault injured his leg after being checked to the ice by Zach Redmond at 5:42 of the second period. He tried to come back, but couldn’t and left the bench for the remainder of the game.

With Toby Enstrom injured and Dustin Byfuglien suspended for four games, the Jets went 3-0-1 and grabbed seven of a possible eight points. With help from the Flames, the Jets were able to make an announcement the club has been dying to make for four years:

“The Winnipeg Jets announced today that individual game tickets for Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference quarterfinal will go on sale on Tuesday, April 14 at 10:00 a.m. Tickets for game 6, if necessary, will be made available once that game is confirmed. Individual game tickets for the Western Conference Quarterfinal are priced between $107.75 and $340.00 per game. Fans can purchase tickets online at www.winnipegjets.com/tickets.”

The bad news: Mathieu Perreault is down.

The bad news: Mathieu Perreault is down.

Despite the loss, the Jets are 42-26-13 and now have an X beside their name in the NHL standings. With a point on Thursday, the Jets tied a franchise record with 97 points (2006-07). They are still one win behind the franchise record of 47 victories. Meanwhile, the Jets have allowed only 208 goals against this season. The previous franchise low was 237, a mark they set last season.

So there is one final game before the playoffs. Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. at MTS Centre. It’s on TSN3.



Five Manitobans in This Weekend’s Frozen Four

University of North Dakota men’s hockey captain Stephane Pattyn is all about consistency. The man they call “The General,” believes that by staying consistent, a team with as much pressure on it to win as any in the NCAA, has given itself a chance to become national champions.

“I think getting here is something our whole team expected and put on ourselves,” Pattyn told ESPN on Wednesday morning. “There’s a lot of pressure playing at UND from our fans and our alums. But it’s a good pressure. It drove us through the season and it kept us accountable. Our whole team was on board and everyone was committed to this one goal. We stayed consistent, we won when we needed to win and now we’re here.”

Stephane Pattyn, captain UND men's hockey.

Stephane Pattyn, captain UND men’s hockey. (Photo by James Carey Lauder)

UND, the No. 1 team in the nation will lead Boston University, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Providence College into the 2015 Frozen Four this weekend at the TD Bank Garden in Boston.

And make no mistake, the tournament will have a Manitoba stamp on it. In fact, there will be five Manitobans competing in this year’s Frozen Four, the NCAA’s national hockey championship tournament.

The University of North Dakota, featuring Manitobans Stephane Pattyn (Ste. Anne), Bryn Chyzyk (Virden) and Brendan O’Donnell (Winnipeg) along with the Providence Friars and their top player, Shane Luke from Dauphin and the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks with Lorette’s Joel Messner will all be in Boston this weekend.

Providence will meet UN-O in the first semifinal game on Thursday night beginning at 4 p.m. CST while North Dakota will face Boston University at 7:30 p.m. Both games will be televised on TSN in Canada.

Brendan O'Donnell

Winnipeg’s Brendan O’Donnell, UND

According to the experts, UND is favored over the Boston University Terriers even though Boston has home ice advantage.

“It’s going to be a great match-up,” said the NCAA college hockey experts at USCHO.com. “It will come down to Boston’s high-end talent and whether it can beat North Dakota’s high-tempo play.

“Junior Drake Caggiula may be the closest skater that North Dakota has to a bona fide star. He leads the team in goals (18) and points (36) in 41 games played. However, his team-high 22 points in NCHC play placed him in a tie for 13th in conference scoring. North Dakota has 10 forwards with at least 13 points, making it extremely deep.

“They are very balanced,” the analysts continued. “They can roll four lines and that really is a weapon for them. And playing goal for them is Zane McIntyre, one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award and one of five finalists for the Mike Richter Award. In 41 games this season, McIntyre has posted a 29-9-3 record with a 2.00 GAA and a .931 save percentage. He appears to be just as comfortable making 19 saves as he did in the regional final against St. Cloud State as he is making a season-high 43, which he did on March 6 against Miami.”

The player to watch for Boston University is Jack Eichel who will likely be the No. 2 selection in this June’s NHL draft.

“For North Dakota to beat the Terriers, it will have to stick to keeping the game from becoming a track meet,” said USCHO.com. “ The simpler, the better. For the Terriers, it will take solving McIntyre early. North Dakota lost both games it played in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff (the conference toyrnament) in part because it was playing from behind after the first 20 minutes.”

In the first game of the evening, the UN-O Mavericks will make their first trip to the Frozen Four while the Providence Friars will make their first trip in 30 years.

Lorette's Joel Messner UN-O

Lorette’s Joel Messner UN-O

The Mavericks are a bit of a surprise team in this year’s field. With a 20-12-6 record, they finished third in the NCHC with 43 points. However, after Rochester Institute of Technology beat the “other” Mavericks, the ones from Minnesota State, UN-O beat the RIT Tigers to win the Midwest Regional.

“We’re looking forward to this game because these teams are so different,” said USCHO.com. “Both teams play really well, but they have very different styles. It will come down to which team can assert its game on the other. If it becomes a transition game, Omaha will win. If it becomes a structured game in the zone, Providence will win.”

While no team is a prohibitive favorite, one thing is certain: A Manitoba player will play in Saturday’s final. Last year, Mat Bodie from East St. Paul was the captain of the NCAA Champion Union College Dutchmen. His coach praised Bodie’s Manitoba heritage.

“I think Mat has that pride factor, he’s got that Winnipeg, Manitoba pride going,” Union head coach Rick Bennett told reporters after Union beat Boston College 5-4 in the NCAA semifinal. “I just love the pride he has. Just the way he carries himself. Ever since his first year, just working with him… you could really sense that pride in himself and the game right from the first practice on.”

You can bet that pride will continue with a new Manitoba hero this weekend.

Dauphin's Shane Luke, Providence.

Dauphin’s Shane Luke, Providence.