With Winnipeg Jets’ season at stake, Game 5 must be a story of pushback and pride

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With Winnipeg Jets’ season at stake, Game 5 must be a story of pushback and pride

To understand what’s at stake for Winnipeg in Game 5 against Colorado, a single loss standing between them and another painful offseason, one must consider how far they’ve come.

It’s easy to forget while watching Colorado dominate, but there’s an alternate timeline in which the Jets aren’t in the playoffs at all.

One year ago, the Jets were a captainless team with a new coach and a famously malcontent second-line centre. There was a realistic chance Winnipeg’s offseason would end without its franchise goaltender Connor Hellebuyck or No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele. The idea of winning the Jennings Trophy as the league’s top defensive team, finishing fourth in the NHL or dressing six 20-goal scorers was as outlandish as coming back from a 3-1 deficit.

Scheifele remembers the anxiety and stress he felt before signing his seven-year, $8.5 million contract extension. He recently told The Athletic that it’s difficult for him to reach back and feel the uncertainty of last summer’s emotions.

“There’s times I handled it well and there were times I didn’t handle it very well at all,” Scheifele said. “You get stuck in a thought and can’t get out of it.”

Scheifele explored new psychological approaches to his game while leaning heavily on his faith and family to process the anxiety he was carrying about his future. He’s trying to tap into that same process now as the Jets’ playoff lives are at stake.

“Every moment is a learning lesson in how to deal with it. When you change something up, that’s when you show your maturity, you show you’ve actually learned from a mistake you made or the way you handled something,” Scheifele said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to lean on people a little more — and not just keep it in and harbor it and just get angry. It’s better to let it out and talk about it and talk about what’s actually going through your brain. Then you’re able to enjoy the moment that much more when the time comes.”

Certainly, with the Jets down 3-1, Scheifele isn’t feeling a ton of joy at the moment. He has let his emotions get the best of him in past press conferences, conveying a sense of tension that we’ve seen less of this season. His postgame comments after Game 4 were candid. He and Nino Niederreiter talked about the need for systemic adjustments, while Rick Bowness cited penalty trouble and poor individual execution — and all of these items ring true.

Winnipeg is being outplayed, outworked and outcoached, but the biggest issue is Colorado’s quality — something it will take everyone working together to overcome.

“First and foremost, it’s got to start with each individual’s intensity and battle level. When you start losing those battles on the boards or net front, you end up chasing them and we’re chasing them too much right now,” Bowness told reporters in Winnipeg on Monday. “It starts with our puck management, they’re getting way too many chances off the rush because of our turnovers. So, those are individual mistakes that we have to clean up. Clearly, the discipline is (an issue). Taking four penalties in the second period (of Game 4) took us out of the game.”

It’s not a short list.

If Winnipeg can’t check off each item, though, the Avalanche will end the Jets’ playoffs — potentially as soon as Tuesday night. Winnipeg has given up scoring chances to the Avalanche at an alarming rate — a worse rate than the NHL’s worst team gave up during the regular season.

Colorado has backed Winnipeg’s defencemen off with its neutral zone pace. Nathan MacKinnon has curled back and found second-wave attacks. Cale Makar leads the series in points, while Colorado’s secondary scorers are outscoring Winnipeg’s stars and its depth alike. The Avalanche have been so fast when they have the puck and so effective at recovering it when they don’t that the Jets defenders have often looked overwhelmed.

The Avalanche have recovered so many dump-ins and so many of their own shots to lead the playoffs in shots, goals and expected goals per minute. They’ve taken away Jets outlet passes faster than Winnipeg’s players have been able to adapt.

It’s enough to create a nightmare-on-loop for Jets fans, matching last year’s playoff loss to the Vegas Golden Knights: Win one, drop four, go home early. The Jets haven’t followed a playoff loss with any amount of wins since 2020 and have now been dominated by the Avalanche en route to their 3-1 deficit.

“Every playoff series is different and every playoff year is different, teams are different,” Adam Lowry said. “There’s certainly going to be a narrative that that has happened (before) and the history backs it up. We’re focused on this series with the Avalanche and how we get out of this and how we get the win in Game 5. That’s all we can focus on.”

Lowry’s line with Niederreiter and Mason Appleton had perhaps the best third-line season of Jets 2.0 history. At this time last year, Lowry was an alternate captain and Niederreiter was scheduled to become a 2024 UFA. Niederreiter’s contract extension wasn’t as impactful without Scheifele’s and Hellebuyck’s extensions before him but it helped solidify Winnipeg as hard to play against. Vladislav Namestnikov is doubtful to play in Game 5 with a fractured cheekbone but was also a key signing, adding versatility to Winnipeg’s roster.

The Jets could have bought out Blake Wheeler, lost the P-L Dubois trade and failed to keep Scheifele and Hellebuyck in the fold. Now Lowry is captain; Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari are Jets; and Scheifele and Hellebuyck offer two of Winnipeg’s biggest comeback hopes.

Winnipeg still might not have enough quality to beat Colorado. A loss would probably hit fans hard, given all that Winnipeg accomplished during the regular season.

The Jets built a playoff team out of a long series of offseason question marks. Scheifele, Hellebuyck, Vilardi and the other depth they’ve maintained have a much better shot of extending the series than anyone would have guessed a year ago. Cole Perfetti is likely to help, too, if Bowness puts him in the lineup. If the goal is to be competitive over the course of Scheifele’s and Hellebuyck’s extensions, then Winnipeg needs Game 5 to be a story of pushback and pride; these Jets will need reasons to believe in themselves, whether their next game is Game 6 of the playoffs or Game 1 of next season.

Have they learned enough about themselves and each other? Have they figured out the right balance between systemic tweaks and individual execution?

“Listen, we can all say all the words in the world and say all of the right things,” Bowness said. “Our play (on Tuesday) night will dictate everything. It will. We can say this and make all the correct comments and tell you all of the things that you want to hear, but everything will be decided on what our eyes tell us. Not our ears.”

(Photo: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)