Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gutsy loss as clear a sign of growth as any

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The Winnipeg Jets literally showed more fight in Game 70 than they did in any other match this season, and while this will likely become the beginning of the end for this group, it will also mark the start of a new era.

The Jets are not a playoff team, and there remains work to be done with this group, but there are positives in the way they have finished this season. Winning just once in their last eight games aside, it's clear in the way the Jets have gone about their business they've closed the gap.

The direction under coach Paul Maurice is perfectly clear and there does appear to be a willingness among a strong number of the Jets to not only follow the coach but lead one another.

This team is deeper in talent than the one that arrived here in 2011 and the organization is far richer in terms of depth. Questions remain, and certainly GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has some work to do and lots of folks will point to the crease as the place to start.

But watching the Jets lose 3-1 to the St. Louis Blues with their playoff lives on the line Monday night, it became clear that while they were still a little short of the ingredients that make up a playoff cocktail, the measure is now much tighter.

The last couple of seasons, the Jets faded and left no impression they were on the verge of something better when the curtain next parted. That's not what I see today. I see a team with a pair of young players ready to become legitimate stars in this league and a core of players no longer satisfied to be also-rans.

The Jets didn't compete often enough this season, and that showed in their inability to match the Blues last night. But the blast furnace that is the NHL and in particular the Western Conference has hardened this group. Soon enough they'll be the steel required to regularly compete and ultimately win in the most gruelling of professional sports leagues in the world.

The Blues aren't any ordinary playoff entrant, sitting first overall in the NHL and looking more and more like a Stanley Cup contender. So saying the Jets aren't at their level is an exercise in the obvious. But as Monday night's game wore on, it became clear the Blues were able to go to levels physically, emotionally and competitively that the Jets can't consistently reach.

Still, the Jets are finally on the verge of developing a playoff mind and skin.

The Blues bang and grind and check and fight for every inch of ice. They compete like crazy and each shift is a battle to be won. They're disciplined, know their routes and force one another to follow them.

Ken Hitchcock is a very good hockey coach but as much as his systems are being employed, it is also the leadership of players such as Alex Steen, David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk that makes the Blues so special.

The Jets need to find that same mix of coaching and ownership from the players in the dressing room. There's been talk this season about accountability, but it has come in fits and spurts from the Jets.

The Blues became the first team in the NHL to crest the 100-point mark with Monday night's win over the Jets and they've done it by playing the same way night in and night out.

The Jets for too long this season were unpredictable. And now when they need to rely on their foundation, it isn't stable. Confidence comes from repetition. Do things the same way over and over again and those skills will be automatic when needed.

St. Louis is predictable in execution. The Jets are still searching for that familiarity in all things winning.

But it appears Maurice has unlocked the formula. Too many times, I've looked at the Jets as a whole and seen a loser. That's not what I see today. I see a team. A beaten team, yes. But one that is finally figuring out what it needs to be in order to cross the line from promise to delivery.

The Jets are a long way from being a Cup contender. But they looked the Blues in the eye and traded shots before taking a knee.

Getting beat isn't novel for these Jets. But leaving the arena having served notice they'll be back and a tougher out the next time is new.

My job isn't to tell you when to hope or not. But I've seen a new thread in these Jets of late. One that won't unravel so easily.

'There's always next year' is as hollow a sentiment as it gets. Until the next year can actually be seen as the one that will deliver.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2014 D1

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Updated on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 7:01 AM CDT: Corrects typo

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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