Stumble backwards hard pill for Jets organization to swallow
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/04/2019 (1204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets could have been dashing around the ice Monday morning at Bell MTS Place, preparing for the most crucial game of the team’s 2018-19 NHL season.
They were at the rink all right — packing up their gear, holding one-on-one meetings with their general manager and their coach, and participating in final chats with the media before departing for the off-season.
It’s an off-season those within the organization agree will be painfully long and filled with uncertainty after the St. Louis Blues dumped the Jets 4-2 in their best-of-seven, first-round playoffs series. A Game 7 in the series was set for Monday in Winnipeg but became a moot point after the host Blues’ 3-2 triumph in Game 6 on Saturday.
In fact, this summer of discontent stands to be exactly one month longer than the 2018 off-season after the then-expansion Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the Jets in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.
The disappointment of falling well short of expectations this season was still raw for the 15 players that spoke, along with head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
A clear stumble backward is hard for the organization and its loyal supporters to accept.
“The Winnipeg Jets and the people of Winnipeg have good men in there. And they’re learning. And when they get it all learned, and when we get it all right, we still lose in the first round,” Maurice said Monday. “I’m disappointed as hell, you know. And it just bothers you so much, because you all know the time that we all put into this.
“The commitment that you make, you put your soul into it. And then you lose, man. It feels so bad.”
This was a squad that, from the moment training camp broke at Bell MTS Iceplex last September, was pegged as a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. It soared from the runaway with a 19-9-2 record after 30 games and was 32-16-2 after 50.
But through the final 32 regular-season games, the Jets posted just 15 victories to go with 14 defeats and three overtime/shootout losses. They followed up with four one-goal losses to the Blues in the playoffs, including three at the downtown arena that seems to no longer be the house of horrors it was a year ago for visitors.
None was more debilitating than pivotal Game 5 last Thursday when Winnipeg held a 2-0 lead after the second intermission but unravelled in the final 20 minutes. St. Louis scored three straight goals, including the winner by forward Jaden Schwartz with 15 seconds left on the clock.
Some players wish a new race for hockey’s holy grail would begin today; others, such as winger Patrik Laine, need a breather.
“Well, I want to forget about hockey because the season is over now. We’re not going to play hockey until next year. That’s the big reason. And after this kind of season, I don’t want to think about it. It ended way too early,” Laine said. “It’s kind of a disappointment for all of us, and probably these guys agree that they don’t want to think about this past season anymore. And I’m just going to go home and relax and play some golf, hang out with my friends and do all those things just a normal (21-year-old) would do.”
Though his game lacked consistency during his third NHL campaign, Laine was still a big part of Winnipeg’s stellar cast of offensive stars. The team finished fifth in goals scored (270) this season, just three less than the group fired during a high-flying 2017-18 season.
But the Jets’ struggles to defend weren’t fully addressed this season as they surrendered 243 goals to finish in the middle of the pack in the 31-team loop. A year ago, the Jets were fifth-best in the NHL with 216 goals against. They carved out an identity of being a big, hard-checking squad able to snuff out offensive opportunties of their opponents.
“The piece to our game that I don’t think ever came together the way we wanted it to was the defensive side of our game. We’re going to get lots of guys that put up big numbers and had good offensive years, but our defensive game wasn’t as good as it needed to get to over the course of the year,” said Maurice. “It wasn’t a strength. And I felt like last year it was the quiet strength of our team nobody talked about. Because lots of people were scoring goals and were feeling good about it. But I thought our dirty little secret in Winnipeg was we were a much better defensive team than people knew when they played us.
“That changed the way some people played this year. We get a lot more defensive-minded teams that didn’t come in to play the Winnipeg Jets, they came in to defend against the Winnipeg Jets. And we’re in the process of struggling with that a bit this year, of being used to being checked as hard as we got checked.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler was among several players who hinted bottling up ‘the Jets way’ of the 2017-18 season with any measure of consistency proved difficult.
“I thought the prior season, it felt like there was a 60-minute buy-in every night. I’m not saying we didn’t have that this year, but it just felt like even when we were winning, even when we were rolling, it just didn’t feel in sync, it didn’t feel like it was as dominant as it was before,” said Wheeler. “Obviously, that’s probably just a product of learning how to be a good team in this league.
“You get used to beating teams 4-1 and having them leave your building, the next one comes in and you do the same thing. All of a sudden this is a destination where people are bringing their A game now.”
Winnipeg iced one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season and that’s not likely to change in the fall, with more turnover on the way because of a salary-cap crunch.
Maurice firmly believes only good times lie ahead for the Central Division team.
“We had our challenges, we didn’t get to where we needed to get to. I’m excited about the group. I think we’ve probably learned a hell of a lot more this year than we learned last year. About how hard this thing is and the sacrifices that our group, as a pretty gifted offensive group, have to make to the overall team winning. And they did it,” he said.
“Tough, tough ending. Nobody’s in a good mood. But we’re in pretty good shape.”
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).