‘They hung in there when it was dark and ugly,’ Coach Maurice says of Jets’ playoff clinch
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2015 (2973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
DENVER — It will be a date with a prominent place in the Winnipeg Jets history books. Yes, it will be one of those where-were-you-when moments — April 9, 2015 — the day this reborn franchise earned its first playoff spot.
But, unofficially, this invitation was earned over a span that dates back to Oct. 9 in Arizona and the 2014-15 season opener. It includes surviving a rash of injuries to the defensive corps in December and January and then more potentially crippling hurts to Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Toby Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien in the second half.
It was earned while working through the blockbuster trade that sent Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian to Buffalo, bringing in two critical components in return: Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford. And three more deals by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff — he hadn’t ever been referred to as Trader Kev during his days at the controls — that landed vital depth wingers in Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty and veteran defenceman Jay Harrison.
And so while there was a sense of excitement in the Jets’ dressing room following Thursday’s 1-0 shootout loss that, coupled with an L.A. Kings loss in Calgary, pushed them into the playoffs, there was also a collective sigh of relief here.
Easy, this was not.
“You know what, there have been two or three times over the course of the year, especially late in the year, where we faced some adversity,” said coach Paul Maurice. “I mean, Byfuglien and Little going down for such a long period of time. Buff’s suspension… we lost those two games last week (to Chicago and the New York Rangers) and it was just so painful, the thought that group could work as hard as they did and overcome as much as they did and the idea that they wouldn’t get the payoff for it just seemed wrong.
“I’m happy for them, they earned it,” Maurice added. “They worked so hard and did all the right things. They hung in there when it was dark and ugly and battled through injuries and played in the toughest division in hockey. They earned it.
“It’s been a pleasure for me to work behind the bench. The leadership in that room is absolutely spectacular. All of them at different times have played with injury. It’s been a really enjoyable year to go to the rink every day because they were going to work as hard as they could. Every time they got knocked back down, they got back up.”
As Maurice has said all season long about this crew, they’ve all had a piece in getting to this point, from the stars such as Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Little and Byfuglien, to young guns such as Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry and Ben Chiarot, to vets such as Harrison, Chris Thorburn, Jim Slater and Mark Stuart.
Not only did the Jets end the second-longest current playoff drought in the NHL — only the Edmonton Oilers have been absent longer — a number of them are about to play the first playoff games in their careers. Guys such as Thorburn, Little and Enstrom have always been spectators when the real games have started in mid-April.
So now they’ve gone from spectators to participants for the first time.
“It’s awesome,” said Little, who has played in 556 regular-season games without a single playoff appearance. “It’s hard to explain until you get into the first one. For me, I’ve only watched it on TV and it’s been hard to swallow, not getting a chance to be a part of it. Now I’m looking forward to Game 1.”
The Jets won’t know their first-round opponent until the regular season wraps up Saturday — they will open in either Anaheim or St. Louis — but that mattered little late Thursday in Denver.
Mission 1 is accomplished. Now there’s more to come.
“For me, I really believe in the group so you don’t want to waste the opportunity of not getting in,” said captain Andrew Ladd, who has two Stanley Cup rings from his days in Carolina and Chicago. “Now we feel like we’re healthy, we’ve got everybody back in the lineup and we’re clicking on all cylinders.
“We did a helluva job just to get in. But we’re not satisfied with just getting in. That’s the exciting prospect for me.”
Updated on Friday, April 10, 2015 12:02 AM CDT: Adds video.
Updated on Friday, April 10, 2015 12:09 AM CDT: Tweaks headline.