Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/4/2018 (500 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was midway through the third period Thursday night, during a break in what would ultimately go into the books as a workmanlike 2-1 victory for the Winnipeg Jets over the Calgary Flames, when there was suddenly a murmur in the crowd at Bell MTS Place.
I use the term murmur advisedly because chant would be wildly overstating it. In a building known for its decibels, this one was quiet enough that it actually took a couple seconds to make out what was being murmured.
And then it clicked. After a lifetime of waiting, a handful of Winnipeggers in the crowd had decided to choose this moment to give voice to an entire city’s most pent-up desire: "We want the Cup! We want the Cup! We want the Cup!"
It was bold, I will give them that: demanding your Stanley Cup with one regular-season game still to go and this iteration of the Jets franchise still looking for its first playoff win is putting the cart before the horse and then pushing both of them out into traffic at the middle of Portage and Main.
It was, to put it mildly, all very, very premature. And the crowd seemed to sense as much. A bunch that once famously serenaded Alexander Ovechkin at full throat for the better part of five minutes with ‘Crosby’s better’ embarrassedly let this one drop as quickly as it started, gratefully seizing on a resumption in play as an excuse to let it go.
It came off, as statements of demands go, more Oliver Twist than Attica.
But it also illustrates how quickly and wildly the expectations for this Jets team have changed this season.
A day that concluded with Jets fans demanding the Cup began for me with an email that served as a stark reminder of just how little was once expected of this team.
The folks over at the gambling website bodog.net sent out an update that detailed which NHL teams had most exceeded their expected points total this season. The Jets were near the top of that list: with 112 points, they have exceeded the opening-day over-under line that was set for them of 90.5 points by a whopping 21.5 points.
That’s worth reflecting on for a moment: a Jets team for whom Stanley Cup aspirations are now being given voice was at the start of this year, by consensus, not even expected to make the playoffs, which is what a line of 90.5 points means in today’s NHL.
Now, there is no shortage of Winnipeggers who will tell you they knew this Jets team would do great things this season. Those people are, of course, lying.
Nobody saw any of those things coming because nobody could have predicted Connor Hellebuyck would have a historic season that has seen him tie Tom Barrasso’s record for most wins by a U.S.-born goaltender. Nobody could have foreseen that youngsters Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers would combine for 103 goals. And nobody saw a 90-point season and Hart Trophy consideration in the cards for Blake Wheeler.
If anyone tells you today that they did, ask to see their betting slip. Because if you really did see any of that coming, a wager the size of your mortgage on the Jets hitting the ‘over’ on 90.5 points was the only logical next move.
On a Thursday that was bookended by reminders of the low expectations people once had for this team and the stratospheric expectations they now have, Jets head coach Paul Maurice waded into the middle of it with some musings of his own on expectations.
In a morning availability with the media, Maurice was asked how a team that was still in the race for the Presidents' Trophy until Nashville finally clinched Thursday night had somehow managed to smooth out the roller-coaster ride that is an NHL season and make "relentless consistency" their calling card this season.
Maurice’s answer sounded like something you might hear from a self-help guru: live mindfully and focus only on what’s directly in front of you.
"We’ve worked very hard from the start in handling our day-to-day and not spending a whole lot of time talking about last season or the sins of the past, and not about expectations," said Maurice.
That’s a predictable answer, in some ways, from a man who leads a team from whom so little was once expected and for whom anything less than hoisting a Stanley Cup will now be a disappointment.
If these Jets had been paying attention to the low expectations for them at the start of the season, they’d be wondering now where yet another NHL season had gone wrong. And if they were paying attention to the impossibly high expectations for them now, they’d be wired too tight to even get out of bed in the morning.
So instead, the Jets' mantra heading into the playoffs remains the same as it’s been all season — almost comically so. Asked to look ahead to a first-round playoff matchup against the Minnesota Wild that was confirmed Thursday night, Maurice and Wheeler refused to bite, citing that meaningless game still to be played on Saturday against Chicago.
"Still got to get through one more game," said Wheeler. "Sunday," said Maurice.
Give them credit — these guys are not only on their game heading into the playoffs, having won 10 of their last 11, they are also on message.
Both will serve them well in the days — and hopefully weeks — ahead.
If ever there is a time to live mindfully, it is in the depths of a run through the NHL playoffs, which have always been a graveyard for teams unwise enough to get ahead of themselves and start thinking ahead.
That’s a condition this city’s hockey fans know more painfully than most. Twice in the long and tortured playoff history of Winnipeg Jets 1.0, the Jets had a 3-1 series lead slip away from them.
It’s why one of this city’s most enduring hockey moments — Dave Ellett’s double-overtime goal in the 1990 playoffs that gave the Jets a 3-1 series lead over the Edmonton Oilers — is remembered better for the crushing disappointment that followed: a complete Jets collapse and three straight wins by the Oilers to win the series and, ultimately that season, the Cup.
Only in a city as tortured as Winnipeg are our proudest sports moments just as likely as not to be intertwined with our most painful sports moments.
That’s the context and the backdrop to the heady days to come in these parts.
Here’s a little more context: for all the soaring expectations in this town right now, those same bookmakers in Las Vegas that had the Jets missing the playoffs at the start of the season say the Jets are still 10-1 long shots to win the Cup, behind Nashville, Tampa, Boston, Vegas and Pittsburgh.
Maybe they’re just as wrong about the Jets this time as they were the last time. If you’re one of the people who insist you saw greatness all along for this Jets team, you must love those odds. You should bet the house again.
Just know that expectations have been high for the Jets in the playoffs before in this town and those memories still bring a shudder to those who were there.
There’s an old saying that expectations are just future resentments. It’s a good saying.
Yeah, we want the Cup. More than most, I’d venture.
But what we need first is a playoff win. And then another. And another.
Rattle off 16 of those and the cart, the horse and the rest of this city will all be standing at Portage and Main.
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 Friday, April 6, 2018 at 6:49 PM CDT: Fixes typo