WINNIPEG – Back on the ice for the first of three practices before opening their Western Conference quarterfinal series with the Anaheim Ducks, the Winnipeg Jets made it abundantly clear:
“We’re a huge, decided underdog in this series," Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “They finished first, best team in the Western Conference.
“But we have some confidence in our game."
Naturally. The battle-tested Jets – winners of 43 regular-season games for a franchise-record 99 points – are relishing the role of the dark horse.
“Even if you finished first, you’d want to come in as the underdog, wouldn’t you?” Maurice asked.
Whether or not the classification is necessary, what is clear is that we’re in for a heck of a series between two of the most punishing teams in the National Hockey League. The Ducks had the upper hand head-to-head this season, winning all three meetings before the season series wrapped up on Jan. 11 at Anaheim.
In other words, it’s been a while.
Gone are Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian. The additions – Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty and Jay Harrison earlier in the year – have all starred in a variety of different roles, giving the Jets both depth and talent in key positions.
Boasting an equally strong supporting cast to the firepower, the Ducks and Jets match up well. Getzlaf, meet Little; Perry, Wheeler. On and on, the speed, skill and passion of the playoffs will, as Maurice put it, amplify within seconds after the anthems, igniting what could be a lengthy series ultimately decided by the slimmest of margins.
“We’ll have to keep the emotions in check,” Andrew Ladd said, adding, “I can’t see us being a favourite going into it, but we’re matched up pretty strongly with them. Two teams that play similar styles. It should be a fun series.”
“We’re built pretty similar,” added defenceman Ben Chiarot, who recently returned from a hand injury and was paired with Dustin Byfuglien at today’s practice. “They’re a big, fast team that likes to play physical and for the most part, that suits the style of our back end. We’re not going to make it easy on them.
“Playoff hockey is what you play for all year. I’m looking forward to it.”
With Chiarot back from injury and Byfuglien from a four-game suspension, today was the first time all year this group of defencemen practiced together:
Toby Enstrom - Tyler Myers Ben Chiarot - Dustin Byfuglien Mark Stuart - Jacob Trouba Adam Pardy - Jay Harrison
Mathieu Perreault, who left Thursday’s game between the Jets and Avalanche with a lower-body injury, did not practice today but could be back soon.
“He’ll skate at some point this week,” Maurice said, adding that there’s a “substantial” chance No. 85 will be available for Game 1 (Thursday, 9:30pm CT, Sportsnet).
In Perreault’s absence, the team skated with the following forward lines:
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Michael Frolik Drew Stafford - Mark Scheifele - Blake Wheeler Matt Halischuk - Adam Lowry - Lee Stempniak Jiri Tlusty - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
The team will travel to Anaheim tomorrow following an 11am practice at MTS Centre.
“I think it will be a hard-fought series,” Tyler Myers said. “They’re obviously a very good team over there and they had a successful year. The focus is going to be on us, our game plan and what we have to do to be successful.”
Added Maurice: “Both teams train for seven months, develop an intensity and style of play. … You’re going to put that style and identity to the test, so it’s important to stay true to yourself and what got you there. There won’t be any major adjustments between games. You are who you are now and there won’t be a lot of changes from that.
“It will be an intense series. The playoffs are a different animal in terms of the level and the intensity, and it’s not easily explained. At the same time, a whole lot more fun. The emotion, excitement of it, the pace of this thing is going to be an eye-opener for them. You have to go through it to understand it.”
Underdog or not, the Jets are ready to go to work.