Special to Sports News Highlights

(SNH) — The Winnipeg Jets are an easy team to like.  They boast some of the NHL’s best, but perhaps most unheralded, players in Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and stud defenseman in Josh Morrissey.

Not to mention goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, a perennial Vezina Trophy contender, who has started at least 60 games five times during a nine-year NHL career that’s all been spent with Winnipeg.

Those players and the club itself do not draw a lot of attention to itself – seemingly for better or worse. Plus, the Jets are a small-market team from a Canadian city where sports provide a good chunk of the entertainment options.

There’s an underdog mentality that should be appreciated. 

So, when the Jets won 52 games this season, matching the record for this version of the franchise, which began as the atrocious Atlanta Thrashers in 1999, and tallied an impressive 110 points to finish second in the highly competitive Central Division, there was hope; the kind of hope that might lead to a Stanley Cup parade through the streets of downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

Instead, the Jets lost their opening-round playoff series in five games for the second consecutive season. Just like 2023, 95-point Winnipeg won Game 1, then lost the next four. Only the opponents were different – Vegas in 2023, Colorado this year.

Look a little closer and Winnipeg has now been eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs five times in its last six appearances. Since coach Paul Maurice turned the franchise into a perennial playoff contender beginning in 2014-15, the Jets have reached the playoffs seven times, but won just three series victories.

“Your details have to be so fine-tuned by the time you make the playoffs that there’s no room for error,” Hellebuyck told the Jets’ official website.

Unfortunately for the 2023-24 playoff Jets, they weren’t sharp, and a possible lack of focus opened the door for plenty of errors. Especially when it came to their defensive performance. 

During the regular season, Winnipeg allowed a league-low 199 goals. Against the Avalanche, however, it yielded 28 goals in five games. The Jets also allowed Colorado to go 6-of-16 on the power play (a 37.5-percent conversion rate). 

Meanwhile, Winnipeg was just 3-of-13 on its own power play. Scheifele, Connor and Morrisey, arguably Winnipeg’s three top players, were a combined minus-11 for the series. 

Perhaps most stunning, though, was Hellebuyck’s performance. Following a stellar regular season where he finished second in the NHL for wins (37), save percentage (.921) and ranked fourth with a 2.39 goals-against average, the normally venerable Hellebuyck was consistently battered while posting a 5.23 GAA and 8.64 save percentage against the mighty Avs. 

“We all need to – even in the high-pressure moments when the lights get brighter – continue to be that much more confident in our game,” Morrissey also told the Jets’ official website. 

“Raise our individual levels but do our individual jobs and that’s all you need to do as an individual.” 

It will be interesting to see how the Jets bounce back from their latest postseason setback. Veteran coach Rick Bowness just announced his retirement, but there is some solid young talent capable of meshing with Winnipeg’s established core and veteran contributors.  

So, the Jets should enter the 2024-25 season with similar playoff aspirations, but once again must find a way to not settle for regular-season greatness.  

Winnipeg fans – of any generation – deserve better. 

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