SPORTS

Inexperienced Jets seek franchise's first playoff victory in Game 1 at Ducks

04/15/2015 05:58 EDT | Updated 06/26/2015 11:59 EDT
ANAHEIM, Calif. - After the Atlanta Thrashers were swept in the 2007 playoffs, Jim Slater never imagined that would be the last playoff game for a group that had Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and more.

"When you make it into the playoffs at a young age, you think you're going to be there for a while and it's going to be year after year," Slater said.

That group never made it back before the team left Atlanta, and it took until the fourth season as the Winnipeg Jets to qualify for the post-season. They'll try to win the first playoff game in franchise history in Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night.

"It feels good because this group I think's ready for the challenge and ready to go," said Slater, the one holdover from the 2007 playoff team that lost to the New York Rangers. "I've wanted to stick it out for this moment, to see this team succeed. We have a very good opportunity to do that."

History looms not just for the 15-year-old franchise but the nine Jets players who will dress for their first Stanley Cup playoff game: goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, forwards Bryan Little, Mark Scheifele, Chris Thorburn, Jiri Tlusty and Adam Lowry and defencemen Tobias Enstrom and Jacob Trouba.

Even with Cup winners Dustin Byfuglien and captain Andrew Ladd around, the Jets' playoff experience pales in comparison to Anaheim's. But Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice considers getting to the playoffs "a gate you have to pass through."

"We want this, all of it: the pressure, the excitement, the change in pace to this game, all of it," Maurice said after practice Wednesday at Honda Center. "We've got to soak it all in, we've got to learn from it and we're hoping to do that on the fly."

The Ducks have already done this on the fly and still have captain Ryan Getzlaf, winger Corey Perry and defenceman Francois Beauchemin left from their 2007 Cup team. Back then Getzlaf enjoyed not knowing any better, but for the Jets that's the great unknown.

"If you haven't played in an NHL playoff game, all you've done is heard about how much the game is ramped up — the tempo, the physicalness, everything," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think for (first-time) guys, all they've got to go on is their nerves."

Little, who came from Atlanta along with Byfuglien, Ladd, Enstrom, Slater, Thorburn, Pavelec, Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart, said he was keeping his nerves in check for now. But that doesn't mean the anticipation for his first playoff game is any less.

"It's been a long time. The last four years have gone by pretty fast," Little said. "But this team's been on an upswing, and we've added some key guys and our young guys have played well down the stretch. There's that excitement from our fans and in this dressing room that we finally got to this point."

This is a point the Ducks have gotten to the past two years under Boudreau, and with early exits comes the pressure and expectations that are foreign to the Jets, new kids on the playoff block.

"If you're carrying that pressure, you've been a very good team," Maurice said of the Ducks. "You've been a good team all year and you've probably been a good team for a bunch of years."

The Ducks have been one of the NHL's best in the regular season, while the Jets have built up to this, specifically since the 2011 move to Winnipeg. But in Slater's words the Jets "just couldn't take that next step," because they lacked experience or belief or enough to get over the hump and make the playoffs.

Former Jets and Thrashers broadcaster Dan Kamal sees the franchise's return to the playoffs as a testament to doing things right as an organization.

"I don't think you can take shortcuts, and I think they had some tough years in Winnipeg because Kevin Cheveldayoff stuck to the plan, and I think they're starting to see the results of that plan," Kamal said in a phone interview Tuesday. "They're starting to see the foundation being built in a way that can bring you success and maybe more importantly can hopefully sustain that success."

First, the Jets would like to take the next step and win a playoff game.

"We weren't able to do it the last few years so it definitely felt really good to make the playoffs," Pavelec said. "But it’s not over yet. Hopefully there's a lot of games in front of us."

Notes — Enstrom did not skate Wednesday, but Maurice said that was planned and the defenceman was fine. ... Forward Mathieu Perreault (lower-body injury) stepped on to the ice at the end of practice, and Maurice said he'll be a game-time decision Thursday.

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