RALEIGH, N.C. — Paul Maurice is holding court in a hallway just outside the visitors’ dressing room at PNC Arena in Raleigh and the dozen or so media members in attendance are leaning in to gobble up his every word.
The same scene unfolded on Sunday in Montreal and, before that, in Chicago, San Jose, Anaheim, Calgary and, of course, in Winnipeg every time the new Jets’ boss has opened his mouth since his arrival back on Jan. 12th.
An 8-2 run by the Jets since Maurice took over — a stretch that has included victories over heavyweights such as Anaheim and Chicago and iconic franchises like Toronto and Montreal — can do that.
It gets some hockey fans talking, others scratching their heads. And for those who have watched this confounding outfit closely since its return some 2 ½ years ago, it’s a bit of both.
But we can say this about Maurice and the Jets as they pit-stopped for their second of four road games before the Olympic break: This isn’t just a Winnipeg story now. No, Maurice and the Jets most certainly have the NHL’s attention, especially as they inch back into the playoff discussion.
And, as much as Maurice continues to insist this is a work in progress — 10 games does not a turnaround make, after all — the level of buy-in from the troops has been significant. For any coach-slashteacher- slash-preacher, that is pure gold.
"What you’ve got is a real willing group," Maurice explained Monday. "Part of it is they’re young and part of it is what they’ve gone through. They want answers."
All of this isn’t meant to be a damnation of the preachings of ex-coach Claude Noel. Move through the Jets’ dressing room and there are no concrete or consistent answers as to the root of the turnaround. It’s not anything tangible, just tweakings, a sense of confidence that comes from winning. It’s the belief that bright light at the end of the tunnel could actually be a coveted playoff spot, not an oncoming bullet train about to splatter them all over the rails.
"It’s tough to say one thing is the reason we’re playing better," said Jets centre Bryan Little. "The biggest thing for us is we have a lot of confidence. I think we were kind of missing that for a lot of the season. It’s tough to play when you don’t have that confidence that you’re going to win and right now it seems like we go into every game thinking we have a good chance to win.
"We questioned what we were capable of earlier. You go into every game and you’re not sure if you’re going to win or lose and things get pretty negative pretty fast. It’s kind of a downward spiral from there and that’s what was happening with us. We had some ultimate, all-time lows this year and it’s right around when the (coaching) change happened of us."
Now, maybe this all sounds a little corny or something ripped straight from a scene on Dr. Phil. Perhaps. But confidence and belief are huge building blocks to any athlete, especially — as Maurice said — a crew that was desperate for answers.
And right now the new boss is providing them.
"With Paul coming in he brought leadership," said Jets forward Olli Jokinen. "He’s a confident guy and we feed off his confidence. The preparation he puts in... it’s amazing. We almost play the game before the game is played. We know exactly what other teams are going to do. It’s more detailed, we’re more prepared. We know some things about Carolina already.
"It’s things like that. The day before you are doing drills based on what other teams are doing. That way, when the puck drops we’re more comfortable in the situation and we know what to expect."
Now the gazillion-dollar question: Is this just the spike that comes from a coaching change or is something really taking root here?
"I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey yet," said Maurice. "I think there’s lots of areas we’ll get better at and some of it is through experience. We have a very, very young team here. There are players in our lineup that we count on that are in their first year and they’re just going to continue to get better.
"There’s parts of our game that we see great improvement and we’ve seen some real nice consistency in it and there are parts we all know we can get better at."
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