Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets fired up, doubled over

Players gasping for breath, ready to get back to action

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It wasn't so much a warning as a simple notice, delivered courtesy Paul Maurice. And so for the record, the Winnipeg Jets were told a long time ago this was coming.

Yes, there were the Jets skating lap after lap after lap following practice Friday morning at the MTS IcePlex -- in the hockey vernacular it is referred to as a "bag skate" -- and, in between witnessing players doubled-over and gasping for air during a conditioning session, there were also those who were grinning, laughing and seemingly loving every minute of it.

"The breaks are never long enough... no matter who you are," said Dustin Byfuglien with a chuckle. "But it's good to be back, to get back in a groove and back onto a schedule. It's always good to be with the boys again."

And, frankly, that's a vibe that simply didn't exist just over five weeks ago when the Jets' 2013-14 season was in a serious nosedive. But a 9-3-1 stretch under Maurice and a little R&R during the Olympic break has recharged and refocused this bunch again.

So, dare we say it, there appears to be "Joy in Joyland" again.

"Everyone's looking at the same picture and where we want to be and where we want to go," said Byfuglien. "Everyone's on the same program. That's a good thing when you come back, to see that everyone is thinking that and knows where we want to be.

"(Claude) Noel did a good job. He did what he had to do. At the end of the day it just wasn't enough to get the group on board totally. It's just a new person at the top that is all that is needed sometimes to get a team that is right there pushing and getting us to believe that we can do it."

The Jets practised earlier than usual Friday morning so they could be free to hang out and watch Canada's 1-0 win over the United States in the Olympic semifinal at the MTS IcePlex.

They won't be back in game action again until Thursday, when the Phoenix Coyotes visit the MTS Centre. The Coyotes and the Dallas Stars, who are tied for the last wildcard spot in the Western Conference, are two points ahead of the Jets; the Vancouver Canucks are just ahead with one more.

But, again, this wasn't even a discussion point five weeks ago.

"I'm proud of our group and the way we finished up before the break," said captain Andrew Ladd.

"It's an exciting prospect... you don't want to go through the latter part of the year knowing it's nearly impossible to get into the playoffs. To have something to play for, to be excited about games and have those games mean something. That gets everybody in this room motivated to be great every night.

"I always thought there was more to give in this room. Our talent level, our compete level... there was a lot more there. Sometimes a new voice or a change to shake things up forces you to look into the mirror. And when you bring in someone who has a lot of experience and instant credibility as a coach... he's forced us to practise the right way and that's been a big part of us translating it into games."

But, ultimately, the critical issue to watch when the Jets do get back to real action is this: did the Oly break come at a perfect time for a Jets' squad that had been through an emotional grinder after the firing of Noel or will it stop all the momentum they had gathered under Maurice?

"We're going to find out, right?" said Byfuglien. "But everyone in here is anxious to get back to playing. Let's get this thing rolling again."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 C8

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