As the regular season has come to an end, Last Word On Sports analyzes every playoff series heading into this week’s action. In the first installment, we take a look at the matchups in five categories: Offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and special teams. We also run down the players to look out for and give our final assessment on how the series will pan out. In the second portion, we will analyze what went down in the series, how the matchups led to the outcome and cover all important storylines.
Perhaps the most excited fans in the league this year are rooting for the Jets. For the first time since the 1995-96 season there will be playoff hockey in Winnipeg. That 1995-96 season was also the last season the original Jets franchise played in Winnipeg, before moving to Phoenix and becoming the Coyotes. Perhaps as notable as the team moving that year was the trade they made, sending their franchise star, Teemu Selanne, to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, forever changing the face of hockey in Orange County.
While the two teams have shared some history, there will be no love between the two as they play their first ever playoff series against each other. Their paths to the playoffs have taken very different turns, as the Winnipeg Jets didn’t clinch a spot until their next-to-last game, while the Ducks were never really challenged for the Pacific Division title, clinching it two weeks ago. The Ducks made only a couple of trades to add depth during the season, while the Jets made perhaps the biggest deal of the year sending Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian to the Buffalo Sabres for Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford. A move that’s improved the Jets blue line and made them a scary team to play against.
The Matchup: Ducks Versus Jets
On paper, the Ducks seemingly dominated this matchup this season. When you look at the Ducks’ schedule and see they went 3-0-0 with a 4.33 GF/G versus 2.67 GA/G, it would be easy to assume they will steamroll the Winnipeg Jets. However, two of the three games this season went to either OT or a shootout, with the Ducks really only dominating one game. Also, all three games these two teams played occurred between December 7th and January 11th. Since their last meeting, the Jets are healthier and better.
While the Ducks offense is spread out, the Jets tend to get the majority of their scoring from a couple lines. The Ducks had 10 players score at least 30 points, and two more get 29 points, but only three of those had more than 40. In contrast, the Jets had seven 40 point producers, but those seven were the only players to get over 23 points. It seems odd to say, but the Jets might be more top heavy than the Ducks.
After leading the league in goals last season, the Ducks dropped to 11th this year. While the first line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and a host of other forwards has still been productive, they have not been able to produce as consistently this season. Perry led the team in goals (33) and Getzlaf led in points (70), but both their numbers were down slightly. Some of that has to do with Perry and several members of the team contracting the mumps and sitting out several games. Ryan Kesler was third in scoring for the Ducks; he and Matt Beleskey are the only two players other than Perry and Getzlaf to score 20 goals for the team. This team might not be as scary up front as they were last season, but the Ducks score from everywhere and have a knack for getting goals when they need them this season.
The Jets are led on offense by captain Andrew Ladd (62 points), Blake Wheeler (61) and Bryan Little (52). Those three have been the most consistent point producers this season for the Jets and along with Mark Scheifele will be expected to lead this team in the playoffs. Ladd has two Stanley Cups to his name: Carolina in 2006 and Chicago in 2010 and Wheeler played with Boston during their playoff run to the final in 2013. Both will be looked to not only for their offense, but their leadership. Mathieu Perreault played for the Ducks last season, and if healthy will be looking to show up his former team.
Anaheim’s defense has been perhaps their biggest weakness this year. Sami Vatanen is the Ducks’ best offensive blueliner, leading them with 37 points. Cam Fowler has progressed this year, and might be playing better now than ever. Francois Beauchemin spent some time out with mumps but will be expected to be the calming defensive presence in the playoffs that he’s always been. Hampus Lindholm led the Ducks with a +25 this season. The trade deadline moves to acquire James Wisniewski and Simon Despres have not worked out great for the Ducks as both players are playing uninspired hockey right now. There is talent on the blueline for the Ducks, but it seems like they haven’t played up to their potential this year.
The Jets defense might be their biggest strength right now. Not only are they playing solid, but they’re huge and like to hit everything that moves. Dustin Byfuglien might be the scariest hitter in hockey this season, and he’s also the Jets top offensive defenseman. Toby Enstrom and Jacob Trouba both missed significant time this season due to injury, but are healthy now. Myers has scored more points in 24 games for the Jets than he did in his time with the Sabres this season. Myers has fit into this team better than anyone hoped and he could be a big reason the Jets pull an upset in the first round.
Another year, another Bruce Boudreau goaltending controversy. Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have been splitting starts of late, and it’s hard to give an edge to either right now. Andersen played the majority of the games this season as Gibson spent a lot of time in the AHL. Both goalies have a .914 SV% this season, but Andersen has the better GAA right now. No matter who starts, the leash will be short if either struggles.
At the start of this year most people thought Ondrej Pavelec was on the way out as soon as Michael Hutchinson was ready to take the #1 spot in goal. Hutchinson started strong this year and some people were talking about him for the Calder halfway through the season. However, Pavelec has won the starting role back and had back-to-back-to-back shutouts to finish his season. Pavelec is probably playing his best hockey ever, and might be the best goalie in this series right now. If he keeps playing like this, expect him to steal a game or two.
Advantage: Jets..for now
As mentioned above, Boudreau seems to have goaltender issues that have plagued him throughout his career. Nobody will deny that he’s been a great regular season coach, winning multiple division titles and a Presidents Trophy in Washington. However, his playoff record has been fairly poor. Boudreau’s open style of play doesn’t seem to transition as well to playoff hockey like it does during the regular season. He’ll need to tighten things up a bit if the Ducks expect to go deep in the playoffs this year.
Paul Maurice is in his fifth NHL coaching stint on his fourth team, and in his 16 years behind the bench he’s only been past the first round of the playoffs twice. However, both of those seasons he took an underdog much further than people expected. In 2002 he coached the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, and in 2009 in took them to the Eastern Conference Final. Can he do something similar with the Jets this season? He seems to have the team believing they can win.
It’s pretty simple to give the advantage on special teams to the Jets. They have been better than the Ducks on the powerplay and penalty kill this season. It’s hard to believe that with Getzlaf and Perry the Ducks would be so bad on the powerplay, but they ended the season 27th in the league at 15.7%. The Jets weren’t great, but at 17.8% were better than the Ducks. The penalty killing for both teams is basically a wash as the Jets had a 81.8% PK and the Ducks were at 81%.
Who To Look Out For
For the Ducks: Ryan Kesler
Kesler has to be the clutch two-way player that he’s been in the past if the Ducks are to go deep in the playoffs.The second line has to do what they’ve done all season and provide timely goals for the Ducks so they don’t have to rely on the top line for all the scoring. It’s up to Kesler to lead that line and he will probably be expected to shut down the Jets top line.
For the Jets: Dustin Byfuglien
The Jets defense is going to be tested often versus the Ducks and Byfuglien is the man who needs to prove he can shut down the Ducks top line. He’s physical enough to handle the big bodies on Anaheim but he’ll have to play as smart as ever to contain the creativity and passing skill of Getzlaf.
Winnipeg will remember this season as the year they not only made it back to the playoffs, but also proved that they belong as they put up a fight against the best team in the Western Conference. However, the Ducks have a better, deeper, more skilled team, with playoff experience and home ice advantage. The Ducks third and fourth lines are better than the Jets and provide more scoring. In the playoffs, when so many games go to overtime, and you need those players to contribute more minutes, they could be the difference makers. While Pavelec is playing well right now, neither Ducks goalie is bad, and it’s not going to make a big enough difference to change the outcome of this series. The Jets home crowd will be crazy, and fun, and everything you want from hockey fans, but not enough to help their team win this series. The Ducks will win in 6 games.
Series Predictions From Our Hockey Department:
Dave Gove: Ducks in 6
Shawn Wilken: Ducks in 5
Charlie Clarke: Ducks in 6
Markus Meyer: Ducks in 7
Brandon Altomonte: Ducks in 6
Cristiano Simonetta: Ducks in 7
David Stevenson: Jets in 6
Griffin Schroeder: Jets in 7
Ken Hill: Ducks in 6