There’s nothing quite like the buzz of the
playoffs. It’s what all hockey fans wait for all season long. The emotions, the
ups and downs and the intensity is all about to get ramped up past 100%.
However, there’s one storyline and one city where the excitement will be even
greater. For the first time since a 4-1 defeat to the Detroit Red Wings on
April 28, playoff hockey will be played in Manitoba.
That game was played with the knowledge
that the team was headed to Phoenix. A desperate effort helped the team earn a
3-1 victory at Detroit to take the series to six games and guarantee at least
one more contest at the Winnipeg Arena. A passionate fan base was denied an NHL
team in an era when small markets were struggling to survive.
Manitoba is still a small market and the
MTS Centre seats less than 16,000 people, but this is a passionate fan base.
Since returning to the NHL for the 2011-12 season, Winnipeg’s home crowd has
been known as one of the loudest.
They haven’t had all that much to root for
as the Jets struggled to establish themselves during their first three seasons.
They finished ninth in the Eastern conference in 2012-13 during the
lockout-shortened season, but appeared to regress finishing significantly
adrift from the playoff places last year.
The Jets looked stuck in a perpetual
rebuild that wasn’t getting anywhere. Frustrations reached enough of a peak for
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to take one of the biggest decisions he had
taken to that point by removing Claude Noel 47 games into the 2013-14 season.
Experienced NHL coach Paul Maurice took his place and was charged with the
responsibility of leading a young core to the postseason.
Maurice has succeeded. Playing in a tough
Central division that includes St Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Minnesota,
Winnipeg spent most of the season in playoff position before eventually holding
off the Los Angeles Kings/Calgary Flames for the final Wildcard spot.
They’ve done it without excelling in any
one statistical category. They are a middle of the road team in terms of goals
scored and goals conceded and their special teams are actually below average in
terms of success rates.
However, the Jets have excelled at limiting
the penalties they take and at locking teams down 5-on-5 - they finished with
the eighth best GF-GA record in 5-on-5 play in the NHL last season.
More than that, Maurice’s team consistently
found an extra gear. They got goals at important times, won some of their
biggest games and were able to lean on goaltending tandem Ondrej Pavelec and
The Jets were instantly rooted for upon
entering the league and over the last three seasons, this roster has arguably
become even more likeable. Andrew Ladd, a hockey player through and through,
leads them and there was no place on the roster for the dramas on and off the
ice that followed Evander Kane.
Instead, Winnipeg depends upon a solid
defensive structure and scoring-by-committee combined with speed and
physicality throughout the lineup. Their tenacity is hard not to like and there
will be few neutral fans supporting the Anaheim Ducks in their first round
The Ducks are Winnipeg’s reward for
reaching the postseason. A team coming off a third consecutive division title
and a team that expects to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. The
superstars in the series all play for Anaheim – Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan
Kesler – but when they travel to Manitoba on April 20, these Ducks will be a
side-story to the main event. They will become a part of a different kind of
A lot goes into assessing the market
viability of a franchise. However, even in the salary cap era, making the
playoffs and being regularly competitive is still the ultimate elixir for
boosting your franchise. It played a big role in the league’s decision to works
towards greater parity and it was pretty clear in the regular season finale, a
5-1 thrashing of the Calgary Flames on Saturday, that hockey supporters in
Manitoba had been re-invigorated by their team’s recent success.
Of course, every fairytale has to have an
ending. This one’s ending is likely to be in five or six games against a deeper
and playoff tested opponent. We hope that fans will get a Game 6 and a third
home playoff matchup.
Still, Maurice and Cheveldayoff aren’t
ultimately paid to write fairytales. They’ll know that however long this
postseason run lasts, reaching the playoffs is a critical step in the building
and development of this franchise - a necessary step towards the ultimate goal
of winning a Stanley Cup. That’s something that even the older Winnipeg fans
will never have experienced.
On Monday April 20, Winnipeg and hockey
fans alike can enjoy an event that few will be remiss to see. Playoff hockey is
coming back to Manitoba.
Labels: Written by Sebastian Egerton-Read - @Seb_Read