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 Michael Hutchinson.
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 playoff series.
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 history.
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.