RALEIGH, N.C. -- The cameras had gone, the media scrum had vamoosed. And, for a few moments at least, Blake Wheeler looked like the happiest man on the planet.
The big Winnipeg Jets winger served up his most complete effort of the season in Tuesday's 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres and the expression of pure joy on his face was representative of a guy who wanted to soak up every nanosecond -- even if it was fleeting.
Now, the fact that Wheeler's performance come on the heels of his public plea to himself and his teammates for more enjoyment and less negativity is hardly a coincidence. And the Jets were better for him having spoken out on Monday.
Interestingly, Wheeler said his moment of clarity came on the weekend during their third consecutive home loss. And by Tuesday night, the rest of the team was singing from the same songbook.
"It just kinda clicked during the Boston game," said Wheeler. "I found myself on the bench over-analyzing everything and thinking a lot. It just felt like I had a huge weight on my shoulders. It felt like I wasn't able to move or react and I wasn't able to play my game because of it.
"And it seemed like the rest of the team was doing the same thing, gripping the stick really tight... that's no way to play the game. You can't play hockey that way and you can't have success doing it."
Although he didn't register a point in the win over the Sabres, Wheeler and linemates Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd were dominant. Wheeler, with a little luck around the net, could have easily had two or three goals.
But it wasn't just his own personal effort that had him beaming afterward, it was how the team had universally adopted his approach. Sometimes a player speaking out can have therapeutic results. Other times, not so much.
"A negative attitude can be like a disease, but a positive attitude can really circulate throughout a dressing room," said Wheeler. "If you have a few guys walking around with the 'Woe is me' attitude, a lot of guys see that and it can spread. But if you have a lot of guys excited, that's contagious, too.
"Our minds have always been in the right place but sometimes you just need to take a step back, get away from the game a little bit and just realize you could be doing worse things and that it's a pleasure to play this game.
"Certainly, winning brings a little more joy, that goes without saying. But at some point there has to be a conscious effort if things aren't going well to make a change. Sometimes the hardest part is recognizing that a change needs to be made. Mentally we were all trying to do the right thing to win, trying to make the right plays. But sometimes when you are thinking so hard it's just impossible to do what you can do or what you're capable of doing."
All of this should sound familiar to Jet fans. Wheeler had the same epiphany a year ago after his early season struggles. And afterwards he had morphed into one the NHL's most dangerous forwards. But while the points have come this year, he found the same scenario unfolding again.
"This is what I did last year, too," Wheeler said. "I just made a conscious effort to go out there and just enjoy the game and have fun. I think my play spoke for itself after that. You know, I thought I was doing that (having fun) this year and I wasn't. Sometimes you just gotta take a step back and realize you're maybe not doing as well as you think you are and there's another gear.
"Personally, it is almost as easy as flipping a switch. I take this game really seriously. I'm really hard on myself. And so when things aren't going well as a team I tend to put a lot of that on my shoulders quietly. That's not a good thing because it's a team game.
"After that Boston game I got away from it for a while and then came to the rink the next day with a smile on my face and tried to have that circle throughout the dressing room. If we can do that, we're good enough to beat anyone.
"We've shown that. That's not the issue. It's just bringing that right frame of mind here every day."
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