May 28th, 2024

Jets need to pick up their play as first-round series shifts to Colorado

By Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press on April 25, 2024.

Colorado Avalanche goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (40) makes a save on a shot as Winnipeg Jets' David Gustafsson (19) and Alex Iafallo (9) look for the rebound during the first period in Game 2 of their NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Winnipeg, Tuesday April 23, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

DENVER – Resting on top of an audio speaker just inside the entrance to the Winnipeg Jets’ locker-room sits a reminder of what the NHL team is fighting for.

A blue board, complete with team logo and Stanley Cup in the background, has plastic slots for 16 hockey pucks — one for each post-season victory.

One slot was filled after Winnipeg split its first two home games against Colorado. The Jets will need to pick up their play on the road to make it a growing collection.

“I don’t think anyone expected this series to go four straight for either side, so here we are in Game 3,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “It’s 1-1, we know we have to win another game in this rink.”

Bowness ran his players through a firm one-hour practice Thursday at Ball Arena. Winnipeg opened the best-of-seven series with a wild 7-6 victory but Colorado responded with a potent 5-2 win in Game 2.

Colorado has some momentum entering Friday’s Game 3 after converting on opportunities and using its forechecking prowess to prevent the Jets from building plays.

The Avalanche posted a league-best 31-9-1 home record in the regular season, although two of those nine losses came to the Jets.

“This is a team that finished ahead of us in the standings,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “We consider ourselves a pretty good team. We know how deep they are. You have to have a full team commitment in order to win and then you’ve got to go and play your best hockey at the key times, which is now.

“Two games doesn’t cut it. It might take seven and we have to be committed to doing that.”

There have been some surprises in the first-round matchup between clubs that were separated by just three points in the Central Division.

Few hockey observers expected a combined 20 goals over two games or for Avalanche netminder Alexandar Georgiev to have had the edge on Jets goalie and Vezina Trophy favourite Connor Hellebuyck.

“I never worry about his confidence,” Bowness said of his No. 1 goaltender. “He’s very confident in himself. He knows he’s an elite goalie. He wants the ball. He loves being in there in these big moments.”

While not in stone, the Jets are expected to bring defenceman Nate Schmidt back into the lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch. Schmidt skated with Dylan Samberg on Thursday.

“I think the last little bit here, he’s still hearing my voice in his ear, even when I wasn’t there,” Schmidt said. “That’s a crucial part of any (defence) pair. That has to be the foundation for him and I.

“I believe we’ve laid those bricks. Now it’s time to reap the rewards.”

Game 4 is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Ball Arena with Game 5 set for Winnipeg on Tuesday. If a sixth game is necessary, it would be played May 2 in Denver.

“They’re really tough to play against,” said Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, who has three points in the series. “Big, heavy, fast, just a really good team. We knew it all season and we need our best tomorrow.”

The Jets are looking for bigger things this year after crashing out in a dispirited first-round loss to the Vegas Golden Knights last spring.

Winnipeg’s ability to roll four solid lines helped the team cap the regular season with eight straight victories. But there has been some inconsistency since, notably from the second line of Nikolaj Ehlers, Sean Monahan and Tyler Toffoli.

“It’s just a matter of going out and performing and playing up to our abilities,” Toffoli said.

The Jets delivered a statement win in their last visit here on April 13, rolling to an emphatic 7-0 victory. Now they want to do it again when it matters more.

“It’s exciting to be part of a series that has so much explosiveness, so much excitement that’s been around the game,” Schmidt said. “It should be a good one.”

FINAL CALL

Bowness was asked directly about whether Schmidt would return for Game 3, but wouldn’t confirm his lineup plans.

“The answer to that is that we have eight National Hockey League defencemen and 14 National Hockey League forwards ready to go and we’ll make final decisions tomorrow,” he said.

CUP DREAMS

The Avalanche last won the Stanley Cup in 2022. The Jets have yet to win an NHL championship.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on X.

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