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This article was published 14/4/2018 (847 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was Friday morning, the Winnipeg Jets had just wrapped up their morning skate, and Blake Wheeler was answering the media’s questions with the customary blend of disdain and impatience he saves for reporters.
From the back of the scrum, a voice called out: "Mark! Mark!"
Wheeler — and the rest of an assembled pack — wheeled around to see it was Sportsnet play-by-play man Paul Romanuk, who was attempting to get the veteran Jets winger’s attention in what was (I think we can agree) an unconventional manner.
"My name," Wheeler said with a laugh, "is Blake."
Yeah, it is. And you’d think the guy whose one job, literally, is to tell NHL players apart would know the guy who scored 91 points this season, tied for the league-lead in assists, had an underdog Hart Trophy bid going for a while, and is the captain of a team now up 2-0 in its best-of-seven, opening-round playoff series, after a 4-1 rout Friday night of the Minnesota Wild at Bell MTS Place.
A Jets squad that needed a third-period comeback Wednesday to squeak out a 3-2 win in Game 1 never trailed in this one, out-hustling, out-muscling and — more than anything — simply outplaying the Wild from midway through the first through the final whistle.
A series that has been played in a Whiteout in Winnipeg now shifts to a whiteout in Saint Paul, where a record-breaking snowstorm began walloping that city Friday night and will greet the Jets when they arrive Saturday morning. A melee in the dying minutes of the third period suggests the temperature of this series will be running hotter than the temperature outside the Xcel Energy Center for Game 3 Sunday.
Who knows why Romanuk called Wheeler "Mark" on Friday morning? Maybe, he thought Wheeler was Jets linemate Mark Scheifele, although it’d be hard to invent two guys who look more different. Maybe Romanuk thought Wheeler was former Jets defenceman Mark Stuart, who the team paid US$1,458,333 this season not to play for Winnipeg (proving once again that, with dedication — and a painfully slow stride — it still is possible to realize your dreams in this country).
Most likely, Romanuk just got a brain cramp, staring at one guy while thinking of another, and making the mistake of verbalizing the thought.
That’s the point: with the Jets halfway home in this best-of-seven series, it is apparent the rest of the country is still struggling to pay attention to a team — and a city, for that matter — they’ve grown so accustomed to ignoring for so long.
Wheeler said as much himself a couple weeks ago, when he lamented, while talking about unheralded Jets rookie Kyle Connor, "Everything goes under the radar when you play in Winnipeg."
And so it still goes for a team that had the second-best record in the NHL this season, but apparently still needs to pin ‘Hello, My Name Is…’ stickers on its players.
It is not like this in other NHL cities.
Do you think Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid is ever confused with Leon Draisaitl? Think anyone’s slid up to Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and called him Evgeni Malkin? You think anyone in the Toronto media, ever, for a second, doesn’t know exactly who Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews is?
There is going to be a learning curve for this country this spring, in other words, and we’re going to have to be patient with them.
But they’ll learn, just as the Wild are learning -- this is a Jets team that demands your attention like a Dustin Byfuglien shoulder to the chin (several of which have already been delivered to an assortment of Wild players in this series).
Canada -- and its broadcasters -- might still be sorting out Wheelers from Scheifeles, and only the most diehard hockey fans outside Manitoba would be able to tell Connor from the kid behind the counter asking if they’d like some fries with that. But you get the feeling it won’t be much longer before the whole country knows exactly who these guys are.
Any Jets fan in this city with a few grey hairs can tell you the boulevard of broken dreams that is a two-game playoff series lead for the Jets, who twice squandered 3-1 head starts in their 1.0 incarnation.
However, these are not your parent’s Winnipeg Jets, a quaint little outfit that would provide an agreeable playoff opponent most years, folding at the first sign of adversity just as surely as winter in Manitoba is followed by more winter.
The Jets were tested by the Wild in Game 1, and passed. In Game 2, it was the Jets who schooled the Wild.
They were faster and tougher, for sure, winning the little battles along the boards all night long. But more than anything, they were patient in a game that was scoreless until Tyler Myers made like Bobby Orr midway through the second period, rushing in from the blue-line and turning a couple of Wild defenders inside out before beating Wild netminder Devan Dubnyk to the stick side.
If you had the daily double of Joe Morrow and Myers scoring goals for the Jets in Games 1 and 2, respectively, you saw something coming not seen by anyone else in a rising sea of white. The customary 15,000-plus that were warm and cozy inside Bell MTS Place were joined by another 10,000 or so chilling outside at a street party that has doubled in size in just two games.
Third-period goals by Paul Stastny, Andrew Copp and Patrik Laine (his second in two games) put the exclamation point on the victory. Winnipeg outshot the Wild 83-37 through the first two games, sending them home on a plane Friday night with more questions than answers.
If the Jets didn’t have Minnesota’s attention before, they do now. With two convincing wins on home ice, in front of a crowd that is currently the envy of the NHL, the rest of the country should pay attention to Winnipeg, too.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
Updated on Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 7:11 AM CDT: Photo added.
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