Two playoff-bound teams clash on Monday night, when the Winnipeg Jets face off against the Washington Capitals. Which team will go further in the postseason?
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: The Capitals and Jets are in two very different places in their life spans as championship contenders. Look no further than their respective goal-scoring virtuosos: Alex Ovechkin, 32, has 97 Stanley Cup playoff games to his credit. Patrik Laine, 19, has never played in the NHL postseason. Sure, they've both appeared in the same number of championship games, which is none. But the Jets are clearly a team building toward a title with a young core, while the Capitals are using an industrial-strength tire jack to keep their Stanley Cup window open.
As I've said for the past two seasons: The Capitals need someone to clear the Pittsburgh Penguins off the road to a championship. Washington is 0-and-3 against Sidney Crosby in the postseason, with Pittsburgh winning the Stanley Cup each time it has thwarted the Caps. I don't believe that the Capitals can beat Pittsburgh, and whether it's against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils or Columbus Blue Jackets in round one, I think the Penguins will advance. Which means the Capitals' season will probably end in the semifinals -- again.
The Jets, meanwhile, will have home ice against their first-round foe (the Minnesota Wild or Dallas Stars) before facing the Nashville Predators -- unless the Predators get upended by a wild card. (With Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings looming on the bubble, that's not impossible.) If the Preds make it through ... buckle up. The teams have combined for 29 goals in three games thus far.
I give the slim advantage here to Winnipeg if only because Nashville doesn't have some kind of demonic hex on the Jets as the Penguins apparently have on the Capitals. But also because this counterargument involves the Capitals and playoff success -- which are, at last check, antonyms.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Out of these two teams, no question the Jets entertained me more this season. They were a more complete team -- steady through the lineup, dynamic, bolstered by star turns from Laine and Mark Scheifele, and benefiting from surprise performances from rookie Kyle Connor and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
But when I look at the Jets, there's one word I always go back to: young. Winnipeg is on the cusp of being great, but the roster doesn't boast a ton of experience. While the Jets are buoyed by some veterans like defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, winger Blake Wheeler and now center Paul Stastny, this team has not won a single playoff game since relocating from Atlanta in 2011. While Hellebuyck has been a revelation, the 24-year-old has never played in the postseason. A hot goaltender is a key ingredient for a long playoff run, so I assume he'll stay composed under pressure. Stingy defense is another ingredient, and the Jets have been stellar on D. They are fifth-best in the league in goals per game, allowing 2.6. The Capitals are more mediocre in this area, as a leaky defense has been a concern since training camp. Washington is below the league average, allowing 2.93 goals per game.
As it stands now, the Jets would face the Wild in the first round, and that's a tough matchup. The Capitals, meanwhile, would draw the Devils -- young and plucky like the Jets, but once again, potentially overmatched by experience. My heart wants the Jets to make a long playoff run, but my gut says the Ovechkin-led Capitals -- a team that has plenty of experience playing in April and May -- may make it further.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: What will be more difficult to overcome: the psyche that comes with not being able to get past the second round in the Ovechkin era for the Capitals or the relative inexperience of the Jets when it comes to the postseason? Both of those can be viewed as deficits, but they also could create some level of hunger in each team. In the case of the Capitals, we've been wondering for years if this is the year. Honestly, this doesn't feel like the year, but I still think they have a better chance of advancing further than the Jets. I'm just not sure either ends up getting past the second round, for many of the same reasons Greg and Emily noted above.
The current playoff format really hampers the Jets in that they'd have to face the titan of their own division in the second round. I just think Nashville is a deeper team overall -- even though I don't think the gap is as significant as you might think -- and after getting so close last year, the Predators are even better now. On the other side, the Caps are used to the playoff format putting them in a tough spot, but you have to find a way, right? They might have just enough to get past the Penguins this time, but I'm going to need to see it to believe it.
Regardless of which team goes further, I think this is going to be an important building-block season for Winnipeg. The Jets are right on the cusp of taking their place among the league's heavyweights. They have a few key contracts to resolve this summer, namely Hellebuyck's and Jacob Trouba's new deals as restricted free agents, but the Jets' core has a chance to be special over the next few seasons. That Stanley Cup window seems like it's peeking open. It will be interesting to see what Winnipeg can do during this postseason, where it should be viewed at least as a legitimate threat.