The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally back! So far, they have yet to disappoint with over half the games going to overtime, and even the ones that haven’t have been thrillers. However, the North division has yet to start. It will get going on Wednesday with the Winnipeg Jets vs Edmonton Oilers. An intriguing matchup for many reasons, this should continue the trend of being very entertaining.
The Oilers absolutely dominated the season series, winning seven of the nine games. However, Winnipeg will look to reverse the course when the stakes truly matter. It was a limp into the playoffs for the Jets, but let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines heading in.
Winnipeg Jets vs Edmonton Oilers Preview
How to Stop the Dynamic Duo?
Easily the biggest narrative coming into this series is how the Jets can possibly slow down the Edmonton Oilers best players. Connor McDavid absolutely destroyed them in the regular season. And while he did that to every team in the North, Winnipeg was on a different level. At times, we saw the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and even Ottawa Senators slow him down for three or four games, but that just didn’t happen in Winnipeg. Of course, if they can stop him, Leon Draisaitl is sitting there waiting too.
This is the biggest issue for Winnipeg. This season, they tried to match skill with skill. Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler got tossed out there at times to try and defend McDavid, which did not go well. In 62 minutes at 5v5 with both Wheeler and McDavid on the ice, the Jets were outscored 11-1. They controlled under 35% of the shot attempts and under 30% of the xG as well. It was pure domination and it is a death wish if this is the matchup that the Jets choose to go with. Instead, their best option may be to try and match the Adam Lowry line against McDavid. Yes, they may still struggle, but they had better defensive results and it can free up the top-six for Winnipeg, which they will desperately need.
The other question becomes which defence pair matches the big guys? Josh Morrissey will certainly have to face one of the big two and that is not a good thing. To say he has struggled since the departure of Dustin Byfuglien and even Jacob Trouba would be an understatement. He has become one of the worst defensive players in the league by EvolvingHockey‘s metrics. Some of that has to do with ice time, but it could be a mismatch if he is asked to play more heavy minutes.
We know about the main guys, but the biggest thing to watch with Edmonton is how the depth steps up. Ideally, they split McDavid and Draisaitl up to get the most out of everyone. However, if they don’t do that then Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will need to be an anchor for that second line. Beyond that, Edmonton needs their bottom-six to play to even this series. Hopefully, they can get names such as Kyle Turris, Tyler Ennis, Jujhar Khaira, Dominik Kahun and more to chip in here and there. They don’t need to be scoring every night, but a goal once in a while and keeping Winnipeg’s depth at bay would be crucial.
If they can do this, their fate likely rests in McDavid and Draisaitl winning the top-six battle. That seems like a safe and reasonable bet to make too.
Jets Need Ehlers
One of the biggest injuries of the season was when Nikolaj Ehlers was hurt against the Maple Leafs. At a glance, it looked bad, as losing any top-six guy is. However, Ehlers has been the heartbeat of this team so far this year. He has been absolutely dominant in all areas of the ice and if they wish to win, he needs to be back and ready to rock.
The way that Ehlers was able to drive play this year is crucial for the Jets. Most of their other top forwards have struggled at 5v5 to control play. While they make part of this value up again in their elite scoring ability, it was very clear the Jets were lacking something without Ehlers. For their best chance, he needs to be back.
This is the case with every matchup in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, but especially so with the Winnipeg Jets vs Edmonton Oilers. The Jets get to ice a Vezina winner and someone who should be in the conversation again this season in Connor Hellebuyck. He is as good as they come and very arguably the best goalie in the NHL right now. Theoretically, he will give the Jets a fighting chance in every series, although the defence core in front of him is shaky.
Edmonton will have Mike Smith starting the playoffs for a second straight year. The difference? He deserves it this season. Last year he struggled most of the season and probably shouldn’t have been handed Game One. It went as predicted and the Oilers ended up losing a series they were favoured in, with Smith being pulled early. This year, he has been amazing. A true comeback story for his age it has been great to watch. The biggest question becomes can he continue into the playoffs? Through his career, we have seen some very good and very bad from Smith in the playoffs. As always, goaltending will be the X-factor.
The Jets almost certainly need Hellebuyck to be above average or elite if they want a chance. However, the Oilers can get by with just good or average goaltending from Smith. They should be favoured in this series, all they need is a reliable option.
This should be an interesting series to watch. There are many paths where different outcomes seem easily viewable. In the end, Winnipeg and their defence may have a tough time containing the speed and skill of Edmonton. The Oilers’ defence core is solid at moving the puck all around too which should help with the aggressive Winnipeg forecheck.
With the skill of Winnipeg’s top-six and Hellebuyck in the net, they have a decent chance in every series. But this may be too much. Look for the Oilers to take this one in six.