The Central Division was as competitive as it has been in some time, and two of its teams will battle it out in the opening round.
Minnesota was supposed to get over its playoff hump last spring but faltered in the opening round. There seems to be less hype surrounding the Wild entering this postseason. Could that play to their advantage?
Meanwhile, Winnipeg is going to be absolutely whipped into a frenzy for this first-round series -- just the second playoff series in the city since 1996. The Jets are the young, dangerous team hitting stride well ahead of schedule (thanks to the arrivals of Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor Hellebuyck, Patrik Laine, et al). They've been one of the darlings of the league in 2017-18, and they hope to keep it going by knocking off a more experienced Wild team. The Jets took the season series 3-1.
First line. Jason Zucker (62 points) and Eric Staal (75 points) are both having terrific seasons for the Wild. However, it's hard not to be impressed by the Jets' firepower. Blake Wheeler (90 points) might be one of the most underappreciated forwards in the league. Center Mark Scheifele, meanwhile, put up 60 points despite missing a chunk of time with injuries. The emergence of rookie Kyle Connor on the left wing for Winnipeg gives the Jets the edge. Remember his name; the young American will be good for some time. Advantage: Jets.
Depth. Patrik Laine is playing on the second line for the Jets. That's almost unfair. He's lining up with Paul Stastny, arguably the best trade-deadline acquisition this season. The Jets have received sparks from their fourth line at various points this season. The Wild, however, are strong down the lineup. For example, while Charlie Coyle hasn't had his best season, he's still a tough punch to take on the third line. Minnesota endured a tremendous amount of injuries to get to this point, and that should say something. However, the Wild's defensive depth is clearly a deficiency -- something that could doom them in this series. Advantage: Jets.
Defense. The Wild should have had an edge here, if not for injuries. All-everything defenseman Ryan Suter is out for the season after undergoing surgery on a fractured ankle. It's a huge loss considering Suter is second on the team with 45 assists and, more importantly, leads the team by logging 26:46 minutes per game (second-highest average in the league, trailing only Drew Doughty). The big question is whether (and when) the Wild get Jared Spurgeon back. The Wild have insisted the 28-year-old will be ready for the playoffs, but will he return at 100 percent after his hamstring injury? Minnesota gets a ton of offensive production from its defensemen, and that shouldn't change. The Jets have been solid defensively, allowing only 2.65 goals per game, the fifth-best mark in the league. Advantage: Jets.
Goaltending. This season has been a coming-out party for Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Although the team didn't quite trust him entering 2017-18 -- signing Steve Mason to be a No. 1, with No. 1 money -- the 24-year-old Hellebuyck shined, tying the record for wins (43) by an American-born goalie. He has been terrific, with a .923 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average. Devan Dubnyk, meanwhile, has been solid, but his numbers are not as good (.918 save percentage; 2.51 GAA), and he hasn't stolen as many games as Hellebuyck has. Advantage: Jets.
Special teams. The Jets take a lot of penalties (second-highest mark in the league: 112). It's a good thing their penalty kill has been strong (81.8 percent, ninth in the league). The Wild are also decent at killing them off (81.1 percent, 13th), so it's a wash there. The big difference comes on the power play. The Jets have been phenomenal (23.3 percent) and feature Patrik Laine, whose lethal shot has given him the most power-play goals in the league, with 20 -- three more than Alex Ovechkin. Advantage: Jets.
Coaching. Entering the season, there were questions of whether Paul Maurice was the right man for the Jets job. He has proven that he is, but he doesn't have the best track record; the Jets have mostly been inconsistent under his watch before this season. Bruce Boudreau has a long history of long playoff runs, but the ultimate goal has always eluded him. He has coached 85 career playoff games (good) but is under .500 in the postseason (not so good). Nevertheless, we'll give a nod to experience. Advantage: Wild.
Health. For the second time in three years, the Wild enter the playoffs without one of their marquee players. Winger Zach Parise missed the postseason in 2016; now it's Suter sitting out. The Wild were hobbled by injuries all season but should be getting a weapon back in Spurgeon. The Jets shut down defenseman Tobias Enstrom before the playoffs to heal; his return is important for depth. They're also without veteran forward Matt Hendricks for now, but he could return later in the playoffs. Neither player is as important as Suter. Advantage: Jets.
Series pick: Jets in six.