Certainly this is not a playoff matchup anyone (or at least very few) in the hockey world would have predicted last fall. In fact, I recall making sport of the Winnipeg Jets and how far we anticipated they would be behind the rest of the Central Division this season.
The joke is on the rest of the hockey world, though, as the Jets overcame crippling injuries to their blue line, a discontented star in Evander Kane and a suspension down the stretch to arguably their best player, Dustin Byfuglien, to reach the playoffs for the first time since arriving from Atlanta in 2011.
The Anaheim Ducks, meanwhile, are the Pacific Division champs for the third straight year and own home-ice advantage at least until the Stanley Cup finals (only the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens had more points), which is where this team hopes it is headed after a couple of disappointing playoff losses to the Los Angeles Kings in the second round last season and to the Detroit Red Wings the season before. For what it's worth -- and admittedly, it's not much -- the Ducks won all three games between the two teams this season.
In spite of the fact that the Jets finished 10 points back of the Ducks in the standings, they actually match up quite favorably with the Ducks on a number of levels. In terms of controlling even-strength shot attempts, the Jets were ninth in the NHL, compared to 16th for the Ducks. Anaheim was slightly better in goals per game (11th compared to 16th for the Jets) and were seventh in goals scored on the road.
Interestingly, the Jets were much better in terms of 5-on-5 save percentage, ranking ninth compared to 21st for the Ducks. The Jets had the edge in goals allowed per game, finishing 11th, while the Ducks were 20th, a function in part to the injuries suffered early on by John Gibson and, later, to expected playoff starter Frederik Andersen and the forgettable period in which Ilya Bryzgalov was repatriated to the team.
What is most interesting, perhaps, is that neither team has had much success on the power play, which is usually a key to advancing in the postseason. The Ducks are on an 0-for-11 power-play stretch over their last seven games, and the fact that they have drawn only 11 penalties over that time is problematic, too. Overall, the Ducks were an abysmal 28th on the power play. The Jets aren't much better; they were 1-for-22 on the power play in their last six games and were 17th overall. The Jets had a slight edge in the penalty-killing department and both were middle of the road in that area of the game, although Winnipeg enters the playoffs having killed off eight straight power plays over the past four games.
The Jets are a much different team than they were at the start of the season, with Kane gone and Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers coming over from the Buffalo Sabres, and both having significant impacts. Ondrej Pavelec, often the object of derision for his uneven play the last couple of seasons, has established himself as a top-flight goalie, and his matchup against Andersen, a member of last season's all-rookie team, is a fascinating one.
Pavelec is 9-2-1 in his last 12 decisions but has never played in an NHL playoff game. Andersen, who appears to have edged out Gibson as the Ducks' playoff starter, is 4-1 in his last five starts but could not hold on to the starting job in the playoffs last season. Does another year help Andersen's confidence and, more importantly, the confidence of the team in him? Funny how the Ducks went out and got Ryan Kesler last June to help fortify them against the Kings, but they instead get a clone in the Jets who are big, fast and ferocious.
The Jets aren't as deep down the middle as the Kings -- or the Ducks, for that matter -- but they are going to be a handful. There is also the expectation element to consider: Expectations are high in Anaheim after three straight strong regular seasons. The Jets, by comparison, have already overachieved, and sometimes there's something to be said for playing unencumbered by expectation.
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf is driving the playoff train. The fact that he's got Kesler to help take some of the weight off him in terms of matchups and offensive production is important, but look for him to be a point-a-game player as he was in the playoffs last year and has been for most of his career. For the Jets, it really is about success by committee as the team's top scorer, captain Andrew Ladd, had just 62 points. But Ladd will be critical to this team's ability to upset the Ducks, especially given the fact that there is not a lot of playoff experience in the lineup. Ladd won a Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and another with the Blackhawks in 2010. His six game-winning goals were tied for the team lead, and when things get emotional in the coming days, his will be an important calming presence.
Let's start with Lee Stempniak for the Jets. That's right -- Lee Stempniak. A low-profile addition from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, Stempniak has filled in nicely as a depth forward on a team that will need lots of depth to move past the Ducks. In 18 games since the trade, Stempniak has picked up six goals and four assists playing mostly with Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault. If he continues that solid production for the Jets, the Cinderella story might not end with a pumpkin just yet. For the Ducks, I'm curious to see how or whether Sami Vatanen steps up in the postseason. The Finnish defender was having a breakout season when he went down with a lower-body injury in February that cost him more than a month. He has not scored since his return, but before the injury he had 12 goals and seven of those were on the power play. (Did we mention the Ducks' power play stinks?) If Vatanen, who had three assists in 10 games since returning, can chip in at his previous pace, the Ducks will be in good shape.
This should be fun. And who in the hockey world isn't waiting to see just how loud the MTS Centre gets when playoff hockey returns to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996? But we still think this Ducks team is just a little better and a little bit more prepared for the playoff journey. Ducks in 6.