WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler woke up Friday morning feeling a little tired, but the Winnipeg Jets captain quickly got energized.
Remembering his team is still in the Stanley Cup playoffs will do that.
“The coffee tastes great this morning,” Wheeler said at a Friday afternoon press conference. “We’re still in the mix, still playing.”
The Jets defeated the Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 Thursday to advance to the franchise’s first Western Conference final, which begins Saturday in Winnipeg against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“When you have games like (Thursday), you crawl out of bed, you’re a little bit groggy, but you’re excited,” Wheeler said. “You’re pumped to come to the rink today and see all you guys and get ready for another tough series.”
Sophomore sniper Patrik Laine was glad he wasn’t on his way to Finland.
“Just happy to be here every day and not do summer workouts back home,” he said. “I’m super excited to be here and just having a chance to be playing playoff hockey with this team.”
The Jets went 1-1-1 in the regular season against the expansion Golden Knights, who’ve been idle since last Sunday after knocking the San Jose Sharks out of the post-season with a 3-0 win in Game 6.
Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who leads the league with 11 playoff goals, was proud to still be competing for a Canadian club.
“Canada is an unbelievable hockey market and especially our fans in Winnipeg,” said the Kitchener, Ont., native, who has 16 points in 12 games. “They’re very passionate about our team and about hockey. It feels good to be a Canadian team to go this far.”
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff knows the team’s success this spring is special for the players and fans.
“I think it’s really the driving force within the group that there’s so much more to give, and so much more the players want to give for themselves and the fans,” Cheveldayoff said.
Thousands of Jets fans ringed the blocks around Bell MTS Place for whiteout street parties at home games, but some changes have been made for the next series. Organizers required fans to get free tickets Friday online for each game, with attendance capped at 25,000 for official areas to maintain safety. All the tickets for Saturday were snapped up.
Winnipeg regained home-ice advantage for the best-of-seven series because of their overall second-place finish with 114 points. Vegas ended up with 109 points in what’s been called a fairytale campaign for an expansion team.
Wheeler isn’t buying that label.
“Just watching them in the playoffs, it’s not a fluke,” said Wheeler, who has 15 points in 12 games. “It’s not a Cinderella (story). They’re for real, so it’s going to be a real tough matchup.”
The series is expected to highlight speed and not be as physical as Winnipeg’s clash with the Predators.
“There’s a different kind of speed and different kind of transition in this series and it doesn’t lend itself to the play as often along the walls,” Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said. “I think priority one is handling speed, not necessarily the physicality.”
But veteran Vegas forward James Neal figures some muscle is needed to contain Winnipeg’s top line of Wheeler, Scheifele and rookie Kyle Connor.
“I think this time of year, you have to be physical on them as much as you can,” said Neal, who has 90 career playoff games on his resume. “They’re great players, they’re going to get their chances. Try to limit them as much as we can.”
The series also pits two hot goaltenders against each other in Jets Connor Hellebuyck and veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s been in 125 playoffs games compared to Hellebuyck’s 12.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a hockey game,” Hellebuyck said. “I don’t think experience changes that. I’m going to go out and play the same way I’ve been playing all year.”