Take a good look around, hockey fans. Notice anything?
The path to the Stanley Cup has never been more wide open. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been struck down. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been sent packing. Two seemingly major obstacles removed in shockingly quick fashion.
Only 14 teams are left standing barely a week into the post-season marathon after the biggest favourite and another perennial contender both pulled up lame right out of the block. Any of the remaining 14 could go the distance this spring. And yes, that certainly includes the local lads here in River City, who are in the midst of writing a pretty nice redemption tale.
Sure, we're only a few pages in. But it's been fairly compelling reading so far, hasn't it?
Not only did the Winnipeg Jets stumble down the stretch and cough up first place in the Central Division, but they also dropped the first two playoff games on home ice to the St. Louis Blues. It was looking like it was only a matter of time before this season filled with so much hope and promise came to a short and very painful end.
But, major plot twist here: not only did the Jets pick themselves back up and dust themselves off, they suddenly appear to be in pretty good shape after a couple impressive wins on the road.
For me, how they've stared down plenty of early adversity and never really blinked is the most impressive part.
Don't forget, the Jets gave up the first goal in Game 3, knowing that a loss would put their season on life-support. No matter, they kept battling and eventually put up a six-spot on a goaltender who looked nearly unbeatable, playing their best overall game in weeks.
For an encore, the Jets surrendered the first goal in Game 4. Again, no big deal, they simply found a way to tie it, then gutted out a well-deserved overtime win.
Having been around this team all season, you get a pretty good sense of where the mood is at on a daily basis. Without question, players are as laser focused and locked in as they've been all season.
What a difference from that last regular-season road trip of just a couple weeks ago, where things came to a boil and players seemed to be pulling in different directions. There was chaos, dysfunction, plenty of infighting and the now-notorious closed-door meeting where grievances were aired. As I said at the time, things were likely to go in one of two directions; either we'd look back at that as the beginning of the end, or some kind of turning point.
It's still early, but it looks like they made the right choice at that all-important fork in the road.
It often doesn't take much in pro sports to have good vibes replace the bad mojo. A good play here, a lucky bounce there and what suddenly looked dire can turn around quickly. But for these Jets, the rewards have mostly come through hard work.
After coming up empty despite playing two perfectly acceptable games on home ice, the Jets dug deep and found another gear in Missouri. The trick, of course, is to bring it back to Winnipeg now and continue to push the pace and dictate play, the way last season's team did on so many nights.
There appears to be a real internal belief that there's a major opportunity staring them in the face, one that may not have seemed realistic even just a few short days ago. Having teams such as Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh eliminated so early only re-enforces that, and serves as a reminder that the landscape can change quickly, nothing is guaranteed and you'd be wise to make the most of any chances you get.
Just look at Blake Wheeler's take on Tampa Bay, coming off one of the greatest individual regular seasons in NHL history, being swept in four straight games by a Columbus Blue Jackets club that didn't even grab the final wild-card playoff spot until there were just a couple days left on the schedule.
"What it does say is there's such parity in the league. Record-breaking season for a team, and to lose four is just, you've got to give Columbus a ton of credit. Torts (coach John Tortorella) has got those guys fired up, playing the right way, believing, and that's what makes this trophy so hard to win. Truly, anyone can win it," the Jets' captain said following the Game 4 victory Tuesday night in St. Louis.
With the way the Jets are now playing, there's every reason to think that team could absolutely be them. Of course, it could also be the Blues, which wouldn't be a shock either. Which just goes to show how big these next two, or three, games truly are.
"I think most guys are paying attention to all the series every night, see what’s going on, how the games are going. It goes to show once it gets to the playoffs anything can happen. Like I said, any given night, any stretch of a week or two, it always changes. So it’s pretty crazy," Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey said of the playoff developments to date.
"We’ve seen eight seeds win Stanley Cups, make it to the finals, go a long way. There’s no other sport like it. That’s why the Stanley Cup playoffs are so amazing, any given night a team finds its mojo and gets going. Over a couple month’s span anybody can win. I think it maybe gives you optimism that anything’s possible. For us, we’re down 2-0 here, you can play your game and get a couple hard road wins. I guess that’s really what you can take from it."
The Jets are no eighth seed. They certainly have the talent to be elite, and are exhibiting plenty of signs over these last two games that they are getting closer to that level.
Another positive to emerge for the Jets is the increased talk of unity among teammates, both in the room and on the ice. Sure, they're just words. But they also appear to be backing them up with their strong on-ice play.
Case in point, check out the ever-quotable Connor Hellebuyck, who provided this glimpse at what the room was like prior to heading out for overtime Tuesday night, knowing a loss would put them back in a huge hole.
"It was kinda loud. But you could tell everyone had their minds right. And we were going with a goal, with a common goal. And with the mindset we were going to take it to them," the Jets goaltender said.
And then, following the victory, Hellebuyck seemed to almost use it as a rallying cry of sorts.
"A lot of resiliency in this room. A lot of character and a lot of chemistry. We’re coming together and we’re realizing that our game is good. We just need to continue to play it and force it down other team’s throats," said Hellebuyck.
The next chapter of this story gets written Thursday night at Bell MTS Place. And if we've learned anything about the Jets this season, it's sure to be another page-turner.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 7:00 PM CDT: Adds photo
7:15 PM: Adds new photo