Jets admit to playoff learning curve

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It was the morning after a game made memorable for both its historical significance as well as the way it played out on the ice. The responses offered up by the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday show exactly where they are as a team right now — still learning.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/04/2015 (2788 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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It was the morning after a game made memorable for both its historical significance as well as the way it played out on the ice. The responses offered up by the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday show exactly where they are as a team right now — still learning.

In some ways, the Jets looked much like the team they were prior to Paul Maurice’s arrival during the day-after scrums. Searching for answers and unsure of where to go next.

Now down 3-0 in their best-of-seven series against the Anaheim Ducks, the Jets are unlikely to solve the riddles in time. There are too many questions and too many lessons.

Trevor Hagan / The Canadian Press Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice instructs the team during a timeout while playing against the Anaheim Ducks during the third period of Game 3.

Immature isn’t the right word, as this group understands it has shortcomings and is actively looking for corrections. Unpolished might be a better fit. Where have the Jets come up short in this series? Mostly in areas of experience, ill-timed penalties and the inability to close out periods and games.

From the candid and insightful Blake Wheeler, to the petulant Dustin Byfuglien, to the spin-doctoring of head coach Paul Maurice, the answers all added up to the same thing. The Jets are in a little over their heads right now. The moment has proven too much. Wheeler can see it and is attempting to process it. Byfuglien — from both his play on the ice and his strange approach with the media on Tuesday — is overheating right now and Maurice is trying to protect his players and their fragile psyche.

“We have some learning to do. Each game we’ve progressed a little bit in what we’re trying to do. The excitement of being involved in the playoffs going into Game 1… we got better in some areas in Game 2. We got better in some areas (Monday) night,” said Wheeler. “And now it’s just about finding a way to push that over the edge. I think there’s certainly some learning to be done to get to where we ultimately want to go. We’re taking the steps necessary to hopefully get to that level.”

Wheeler is an important barometer within the Jets dressing room. He’s smart and articulate, and he’s honest. He can snap when he thinks the questions are off the mark but puts thought into his answers and doesn’t hide from the moment.

When the Jets struggle, he tries to offer reasons.

Byfuglien is different, as his answers — make that answer — evidenced on Tuesday. During Monday’s game he took a reckless penalty, pushing Ducks forward Corey Perry in the back of the head following an Anaheim goal. His play has been inconsistent throughout the series and when he reluctantly stepped in front of microphones on Tuesday he repeatedly offered up variations of the same answer regardless of the question: “If we stick together as a team, we’ll be alright.”

Byfuglien’s motivations are a mystery. But he’s been erratic on the ice of late — from taking a suspension late in the season for cross checking a defenceless J.T. Miller of the New York Rangers in the back of the neck to his Marshawn Lynch impression with the media.

Maurice is both clever and protective. He’s more than fair with the media and consistently provides his time. But his good-natured treatment of the media shouldn’t be confused with transparency. Maurice can deflect with the best of them and his strategy on the micro-storm created by Byfuglien’s act was nothing short of masterful spinning.

“And at some point, as a competitive man, he has the right to come out here and say that,” suggested Maurice. “I want you to fully appreciate the number of F-bombs that he dropped on you in the back of his brain. Out of the sense of civility, he’s a kind and civil and giving man, so the fact that he didn’t tell you how he really felt, I think is maturity.”

Ah. So Byfuglien was actually being polite. Got it, coach. Stretch much? This is the playoffs and coaches will say whatever they think gives them an edge. By attempting to shelter Byfuglien, Maurice purchased more loyalty from his players.

Byfuglien is nobody’s fool. Maybe he was angry on Tuesday. Maybe he was embarrassed by his play. Or maybe he wanted to pull the focus from his team’s 3-0 plight and put it on himself.

We’ll never know, but it will be fascinating to see what game he brings Wednesday night.

Maurice said early in his press briefing he didn’t think his team’s lapses late in periods and in games during this series were due to a lack of experience, but later on admitted his group had lessons to learn. Or, in other words, to gain experience playing in games of this import.

“It’s not a straight line, is it? The lessons that we talk about, it’s not a straight line or you’d have 30 Stanley Cup champions. How long does it take you to learn one thing? It’s not supposed to be easy, right? We do go into St. Louis and shut the door in a game like that and you do it in Minnesota and eventually you’ll get to the point as a team that you can do it enough and often enough that this conversation isn’t taking place. But in any of these things that you have to learn, if it was a straight and vertical line, then there would be 30 Stanley Cup champions,” said Maurice. “It’s just not easy. But you don’t learn them unless you go through them, and you don’t get better at it unless you handle it the right way. That’s what we’re going through right now.”

The end of this season appears near. But the arc of the Jets as a playoff team is just beginning. This had to happen. It’s the way of the world.

I’m told in recovery, one can’t “skip steps.”

Same goes in the pursuit of a title.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

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