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Jets have the right stuff

Maurice impressed with players' dedication to each other

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One by one they sat across from Paul Maurice and said virtually the exact same thing.

Even before Friday's 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames, the Winnipeg Jets head coach had started his 'exit' meetings with some of the team's players and will hold the rest today, before the squad packs up and heads out for another extended spring and summer.

And the common theme? Frustration meets determination.

"We've got a bunch of really good guys that are tired of losing," said Maurice when asked what he's learned about this crew since taking over on Jan. 12th. "They are really tired of this. They're willing to do whatever you ask them to do. They've worked hard in practice, they've competed in some tough situations. I'm excited about that.

"I watched them play an awful lot before the change... they were trying. It's just, you try and get them to try in the same direction. I've been really happy. That's what excites me about this team: the room. Where I think we're at, where I think they can get to... we have two really good young players (Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele) that are going to be impact players next year."

That's part of the silver-lining, positive-spin sales pitch those in Jetsville are preaching these days. Yet the playoff drought has extended to seven years, dating back to 2006-07 and the franchise's days in Atlanta.

By winning three of their last four games, the Jets also finished 18-12-5 under Maurice. There has been a substantial buy-in to what he's been preaching and the foundation he tried to set over a three-month span. As evidence, there was last weekend's win over the Toronto Maple Leafs following the decision to bench Evander Kane and, following a gruelling bag skate on Wednesday, the back-to-back victories over Boston and Calgary on consecutive nights to end the regular season.

Of course, that's the stuff non-playoff teams also cling to while 16 others chase the Stanley Cup. And Jets fans have heard it before.

But a new voice means new hope, even knowing this crew could look considerably different by the time they gather next September for training camp. Presumably, with Maurice calling the shots.

So here's his take on what he found out about this team after being parachuted in to replace Claude Noel:

"I think there's a lot there in terms of the right kind of people for Winnipeg, to be in that market, to be on that team. They really do care.

"Whether we were having success or we were in our tough spots, when I came in and talked about what we needed to do they bit into it. We had their attention and they did what they could. Things got away from us and we slipped back into some old habits, but that's understandable. That's the way this thing works, right? You're just trying to create that consistency. Understand your game.

"I've done 11-12 exit meetings with the injured guys already and they're excited about coming back and that's really important."

Friday's win over Calgary showcased a little of that. Icing a lineup that featured a handful of guys who will be re-joining the St. John's IceCaps for their Calder Cup run -- including a rookie goaltender making just his third NHL start in Michael Hutchinson -- the Jets dominated the Flames early in building a 3-1 lead, got into penalty trouble and let the home side back in at 3-3 before finding some reserves in the third period to seal the win.

The result left the Jets with a final 2013-14 record of 37-35-10 -- the exact same total as in Year 1 of the rebirth in Winnipeg.

"They showed that after about three minutes of the second they had nothing left and then they found a way," said Maurice. "The goaltender had a lot to do with it and losing (Jacob) Trouba (he took a puck in the throat) and then Jimmy Slater (broken finger) put us in a real tough, tough spot and then we found a way to just grind something out.

"I've never ever put a whole lot of stock into the last game when you're out, except if they quit. And I mean on each other. They didn't quit and there was nothing on the line except playing for each other. If they care about each other we've got good leadership."

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2014 B3

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