Back in the spring of 2018, the Winnipeg Jets had exactly one day to prepare for their Western Conference final series against the Vegas Golden Knights after they knocked off the Nashville Predators in seven games. Read MoreJets begin long process of preparing for ‘sprint’ series against the Flames — Winnipeg Sun
Back in the spring of 2018, the Winnipeg Jets had exactly one day to prepare for their Western Conference final series against the Vegas Golden Knights after they knocked off the Nashville Predators in seven games.
Contrast that to this year, when Jets head coach Paul Maurice has about two months — including a two-week training camp — to game plan and prepare his team for a best-of-five summer series against the Calgary Flames.
“Never in the history of hockey have you pre-scouted a playoff game a month and a half in advance,” Maurice said Monday after the Jets returned to the ice for the first time since the COVID-19 shut down on March 12.
“There’s a great thing there but there’s a danger there too.”
“That is such a real question of philosophy. When you poll the other NHL coaches and ask ‘What’s your plan for that?’ the one thing we all kind of get to is the primary priority No. 1 is your own team and your own game.”
The Jets practised at the IcePlex on Monday as preparations for the NHL’s return to play began in earnest.
In 13 days they’ll head to Edmonton and go into the hub city bubble, before opening up against the Flames on Aug. 1 at Rogers Place.
It’s the first time the Jets and Flames will meet since the Heritage Classic outdoor game on Oct. 26 in Regina. At the time Bill Peters was still the Flames head coach, but he submitted his resignation amid racism and bullying allegations on Nov. 29 and Geoff Ward took over.
All that is going to make this hockey series in August even more bizarre.
“The really kind of neat story is that there probably isn’t another team in the NHL, that based on last season, we know less about,” Maurice said. “We had one game against them, so that would almost make them like an Eastern Conference opponent, and it was an outdoor game and they had a different coach.
“So both teams don’t have any memory of a style of game or what it might look like. It’s been at least a year and a half I guess before these two teams can remember the hockey. So this is going to be unusual for sure, but certainly exciting.”
The entire NHL went dark because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the playoffs were expanded to 24 teams for the return to play, so there’s very little that’s normal about the situation the players are currently in.
They’re undergoing regular testing for the coronavirus — a highly uncomfortable process they jokingly call the “brain tickler” — doing all their media availabilities over Zoom and skating on soft summer ice in a foggy arena.
Still, there’s one thing that’s the same as every year — they’re trying to come up with a way to beat Calgary and move on to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
“Besides everybody being cautious and wearing a mask, it’s not that different,” forward Nikolaj Ehlers said. “We’re not hugging each other or giving high fives and stuff like we usually do. But other than that we’re in our locker room, not sitting too close to each other but still talking, and making the most of this situation.
“Everybody is back for a reason. We love playing hockey and we’re back playing it.”
They’ll skate most days between now and July 26, when they are slated to leave for Edmonton. The idea is to hit the ground running when they get there.
They’ll play one exhibition game and then get right into the series, which will likely be quite a bit different from any they’ve played before.
“You can get into a seven-game series, and if you think the two teams are evenly matched you say ‘I think this is gonna be a grinder,’” Maurice said.
“I think you go back to the last seven-game series, the Nashville series, that we had, you almost could predict it, you could feel it. There were two points that separated the teams in the regular season, so it could go to seven.
“This one will be viewed far more as a sprint. As hard and as fast as you can go. Everybody will be talking about running four lines but that bench might get a little short, a little early. I would say I’m not sure because I’ve never been in a five-gamer in the NHL and we’ve had four months off before we play it. But I think there might be a mindset of ‘This is gonna be a sprint.’ So there’s no sense saving them for Game 6.”
Maurice trying to find way to push players but not push too hard in training camp
The first day of Winnipeg Jets return-to-play training camp was not exactly a high-intensity affair.
Coach Paul Maurice wanted to get a sense of how each player was feeling, knowing that some had ample access to ice during the pandemic shutdown, while others barely skated at all.
Maurice normally pushes his players hard in the first session of training camp, but this year there will be a delicate balance between getting everyone ready for a series against Calgary and overdoing it.
“That’s the challenge here, for sure,” Maurice said. “You don’t want to be crossing that line. The result of losing a player early right now (to injury) can be disastrous.
“But if you’re looking at a risk/reward, your team has to get pushed here. At some point here, we’re going to get to the right pace. Because you can say ‘Hey great, got through the first game and we didn’t have one injury.’ But if your team’s not ready, you’re only playing three games.”