The NHL’s all-Canadian North Division final standings were all but locked in until about two weeks ago. Toronto would surely finish first and face off against historic rival Montreal in the opening round. Winnipeg and Edmonton would go down to the wire as to who would have home-ice ‘advantage’ in the opening round battle that would see the Jets and Oilers undoubtedly finish No. 2 and 3 within the division.
Then, things changed.
Vancouver came back and beat Toronto in its first two games after nearly one month off as the majority of the team rebounded following the positive COVID and COVID variant tests that saw many members of the team bedridden.
And if that wasn’t enough, Montreal began losing games to the nearly written-off Calgary Flames. For a while it became a question as to if the Canadiens would even make the postseason, as the club put up a 7-10-0 record through the month of April. However, Calgary’s resurgence fanned out, while the Canucks have now lost four-straight games.
But the biggest story within the division is that of the Winnipeg Jets, who just two weeks ago returned from a five-game road trip that saw the club take eight of a possible 10 points, only losing to Ottawa after beating the Senators, Maple Leafs and Canadiens (twice) as visitors.
That team came back to Winnipeg and lost five-straight games at home to Toronto and Edmonton, before hitting the road for the final trip of the season, where the Jets lost the opener 5-3 to Montreal.
Winnipeg was within one win of the Leafs just three weeks ago. The team has since fallen to 14 points back of Toronto while watching Edmonton build a five-point lead for second place in the North, and the shot at home ice advantage in the opening round.
This begs the question: ‘Is Winnipeg best suited for a first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the host club, rather than a first-round matchup with the Edmonton Oilers as the likely host?’
It is no secret that teams ‘tank’ for the opportunity to have a higher draft placement near the end of most regular seasons. But do teams ‘tank’ for more favourable playoff matchups? Would Winnipeg consider doing so to face off against Toronto, rather than an Edmonton team that has beat the club six straight times? Has Winnipeg already begun said ‘tank’ job?
Maybe ‘tanking’ is an inappropriate term. Is the phrase ‘jockeying for position’ better?
Those are some questions that no one will ever dare ask, nor will anyone ever be told, but the level of intrigue surrounding the topic most certainly remains both alive and well.
Looking at the 2020-21 shortened season, the statistics would likely provide a more favourable outcome should Winnipeg play Toronto in the opening round rather than Edmonton. The Jets have gone 2-7-0 against the Oilers on the year, compared to 3-4-2 against Toronto with one game left to be played.
At worst, Winnipeg could finish with eight of a possible 20 points on the season against Toronto. At best, it could take 10 of 20 points – significantly better than that of its record against Edmonton (four of 18 points).
Taking home/away records into the fold, Winnipeg was a surprising 3-1-1 against the Leafs at Scotiabank Arena, while only managing one point going 0-3-1 at home against Toronto this year. The Jets were 1-3-0 at home against the Oilers, while going 1-4-0 in Edmonton this season.
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Neither scenario is pretty, but the most Winnipeg-friendly option would be a best-of-seven against the Maple Leafs with Toronto playing host. Taking seven of possible 10 points against Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Co. at Scotiabank Arena is no small feat. But is the thought of Winnipeg’s most recent performances against Toronto (1-3-1) too much of a detriment to consider this possibility?
Well, the Jets’ six-game losing streak to Edmonton certainly won’t help change the narrative should Winnipeg suddenly become hungry for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Mike Smith…
Currently on a six-game slide, the Jets are actually currently projected to finish the year in fourth place, queuing up that potential Toronto-Winnipeg best-of-seven. And should that happen, it would truly be anyone’s game. Whether it’s a natural losing streak or a ‘tank job’, Winnipeg very well may be in line for its most favourable postseason showdown possible.
Montreal does play Toronto three more times before the end of the season, so with these possibilities still up in the air, some additional motivation may be floating around the Maple Leafs’ dressing room in terms of keeping Montreal in fourth place. Toronto is 5-2-0 against the Canadiens this season.
Adding to the absurdities, Edmonton is just 1-4-1 against Montreal in six games this year. That, coupled with the fact that the there are still two upcoming games between the Oilers and Canadiens, may play into Winnipeg’s future outlook.
There also is another scenario that Jets fans may not want to consider. Should the losing streak carry on longer than another couple games, Winnipeg could also fall completely out of the playoff picture altogether, should the Flames – or more likely – the Canucks suddenly go on a tear.
Only time will tell.