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The road to the Stanley Cup now runs through Winnipeg

Hockey has a bunch of great stories right now. This one might have the best chance of ending in a championship.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Winnipeg Jets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This Winnipeg Jets’ season has been sudden and not. On the one hand, this is the franchise — and still has has a couple of the same players, even — that used to make up the perpetually bad Atlanta Thrashers. After the team’s birth in 1999, it made the playoffs once in 11 years and got swept in the first round. Then it moved to Winnipeg and made the playoffs once in six seasons. It got swept in the first round again.

The Jets have sure crashed through the gates now, though. They finished second in the league with 114 points this year. They ruined the Predators’ season with a 5-1 romp in a second-round Game 7, and now they start Saturday in the Western Conference Final against the upstart Golden Knights.

In Game 7 in Nashville, the Jets were amazing. They were fortunate that Pekka Rinne gave up two miserable goals in the first 10:47 and got yanked, but they were going to win anyway. Nashville wound up with big edges in possession stats like raw shot attempts (70-51), shots on goal (37-24), and scoring chances (31-21), but that owed mostly to the Jets parking the bus after getting ahead, 3-1, late in the second period. This graph, which plots a rolling advantage in shot attempt margin, shows how much of Nashville’s push was too late:

Natural Stat Trick

The Jets got better goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck than the Predators did from his fellow Vezina Trophy nominee Rinne, but it went deeper than that. They were crisper with the puck. They got two goals (one empty-netter) from Mark Scheifele, the traditionally playmaking center who now leads the playoffs in goals with 11. Paul Stastny, who’s somehow just 32, had two goals and an assist. Their defensemen were everywhere, pinching up as far as the Nashville goal line at moments and collapsing in on their own crease when they had to be there. What a road game they played.

The Jets built this team through years of struggle and patience. That’s fitting in a city that lost a team in 1996 and has yearned to get back here.

The Jets brought a roster into these playoffs that included 16 players they (or the Thrashers) drafted, seven trade acquisitions, and six free agent pickups. Their best players all came from the first two groups. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, whom the new ownership group installed upon moving from Atlanta in 2011, deserves a ton of credit.

Cheveldayoff didn’t make all of these moves, though he’s had a hand in figuring out which pieces from Atlanta days to hang onto and which to cash in.

He traded Thrashers cornerstones Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane to get tall defenseman Tyler Myers and, among other players, former Buffalo first-rounder Joel Armia, who chipped in 29 points this year. He held on to wide defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and skilled forward Bryan Little. Blake Wheeler, whose one year in Atlanta was just one weird chapter in one of the oddest careers of this century, is now the Jets’ 91-point-scoring captain.

Nashville Predators v Winnipeg Jets - Game Six

But more than anything, this team has gotten here by drafting and developing talent since its move to Winnipeg. Cheveldayoff has hit a mix of homers and doubles with his first-round picks since the team went north: Scheifele at No. 7 in 2011, Jacob Trouba at No. 9 in 2012, Josh Morrissey at No. 13 in 2013, Nikolaj Ehlers at No. 9 in 2014, Kyle Connor at No. 17 in 2015, and — best of all — Patrik Laine at No. 2 in 2016.

That’s most of a championship-caliber core, right there, and it doesn’t even include Hellebuyck, the emergent wall of a goalie they found in the fifth round in 2012.

The Jets would be a good story even if they weren’t doing this in a city that’s mad for hockey but spent a decade and a half in the wilderness, without a team. Their Game 1 win against the Wild in April was one of the most special moments of these playoffs. Their fans have packed the streets outside Bell MTS Place throughout their run. They’ve been waiting a long time for this, even longer than their GM waited for his team to mature into a monster.

This year’s already been a breakthrough. It could yet get better.

Every team left is elite. The Jets have as much chance as anyone, and maybe even better, because their regular-season dominance means they’ll have home-ice advantage for the rest of their spring. For someone else to lift the Cup, the Jets will have to lose in Winnipeg.