ORANGE COUNTY, California
-- And then there was one.
Only one more night until the Winnipeg Jets begin their Stanley Cup playoff series with the Anaheim Ducks. So how is Bryan Little, a player with 556 regular season games under his belt, feeling before his first playoff appearance?
“I imagine I will be (feeling nerves) before the puck drops tomorrow,” he said. “But once the game starts and you get a couple shifts into it, I think I'll be fine.”
Little isn’t the only Jet who has waited a long time to play his first post season contest. Chris Thorburn and Toby Enstrom are in the same boat, having played 603 and 544 regular season games respectively.
“It's been a long time. The last four years have gone by really fast, but this team has been on an upswing. We've added some key guys and our young guys have played well down the stretch,” Little added. “There's that excitement from our fans and this dressing room that we've finally got to this point. Everyone is congratulating us. Everyone is celebrating. I think we enjoyed it for 24 hours and it's kind of back to work. Getting here is only one step of the process.”
There is playoff experience in the Jets dressing room though. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, and Michael Frolik have four Stanley Cups combined, and assistant coach Charlie Huddy is no stranger to post season success, winning five championship rings with the Edmonton Oilers. Paul Maurice has made four appearances in the playoffs behind the bench, all with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Drew Stafford has 20 NHL playoff games under his belt as well. He says the experience that is in the room, is valuable.
“There are guys in here that have won Cups, multiple Cups. We do have some experience in here. That's what it's all about,” he said. “We do have a few fresh faces, some younger guys who haven't had that experience, but guaranteed they'll be bringing the energy, the enthusiasm to help us out.”
Maurice looks at playoff experience a different way. He says the value doesn’t always come from the post season.
“The value isn't necessarily the experience, it's being good enough to get it,” he said. “I wouldn't have said this three weeks ago, because you don't know how this thing is going to shake out. But getting into the playoffs for our team, for that experience of being here, is a gate you have to pass through.”
And passing that “gate,” as Maurice puts it, is crucial for young players like Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Lowry.
“We have some young players in our line up, we want them to have that. All of it,” said Maurice. “The excitement, the pressure, the change in pace to this game, all of it. We have to soak it all in.”
All season the Winnipeg Jets have faced adversity. Whether it was being down five regular defencemen at one time earlier in the season, to battling for every single point during the playoff push. Now, the adversity comes in the way of the Anaheim Ducks: The top-seeded team in the Western Conference. But captain Andrew Ladd likes how the two teams match up, despite Winnipeg’s 0-1-2 record against Anaheim in the regular season.
“Those games were pretty tight games. One overtime, one shootout,” said Ladd. “Obviously they're the number one seed in the West for a reason. They do a lot of good things and have a lot of good players over there. I think we feel like we're playing well now and have added some key guys to help us down the stretch.”
One of those key players was Stafford, who since coming to the Jets in February, has 19 points in 26 games. He along with Tyler Myers, Lee Stempniak, and Jiri Tlusty have yet to face Anaheim wearing a Winnipeg Jets jersey.
“We've been playing desperate hockey for the last month and a half to try and get in the playoffs,” Stafford said. “We play a fast, physical style, in the playoffs That's usually how the games are. They're fast and physical. We're used to playing that style of game.”
Even though the two teams haven’t faced each other since January 11, Maurice said he can hardly wait for the puck to drop at Honda Center at 9:30 pm CT tomorrow.
“The first 10 minutes tomorrow night are going to be very interesting,” he said. “It's two teams that haven't seen each other. We're still figuring out how we all fit together. It will be exciting. You don't want to show up late.”
LATE HITS: Toby Enstrom did not skate with the team today at Honda Center, but Paul Maurice says he’s good to go tomorrow.
“We’ve got a schedule and routine,” he said. “Three days of practice is highly unusual for us, so we picked our days for certain guys.”
Mathieu Perreault came on the ice near the end of practice to test his injury. Maurice says the forward will be a game time decision tomorrow night.