Ten days away: four games, two wins, two losses, more than 6,200 kilometres in the air and approximately 25,000 words written by yours truly.
I'm sure you read every one of them, right?!
Yes, this latest Winnipeg Jets road trip was a doozy, the longest of the season aside from the overseas journey to Finland in late October. There's plenty to dissect and discuss about what we saw go down as the team enters the final four weeks of the season, clinging to first place in the Central Division with 14 games left.
There were plenty of encouraging signs, for sure, as the Jets looked a lot closer to a Stanley Cup contender than pretender. A rock-solid win in Columbus, a tough one in Tampa, a rout in Raleigh and a hard-fought loss in Washington against the reigning champs that could at least be viewed as a moral victory, of sorts.
"We liked our game an awful lot in three of the four. Tampa’s got a good hockey team and they can make you look bad. I like the way we played," coach Paul Maurice said Sunday night.
The key, of course, is to keep it up. Winnipeg will get a heck of a test starting Tuesday night with visits from San Jose, Boston and Calgary. That's as meaty of a homestand as it gets, especially for a team still missing two huge pieces on the blue line in Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey.
A collection of random thoughts and nonsense from an overflowing notebook and a sleep-deprived brain:
• There is no Stanley Cup hangover among Washington Capitals fans. Capital One Arena was the loudest barn I've been in all year and, yes, that includes Bell MTS Place, which has been rather subdued for much of the season. The crowd was into absolutely everything, and it made for a great experience.
• Mark Scheifele has played some terrific hockey for the Jets this season. But Sunday night might have been the worst game of his season. He was a mess in both ends of the rink, and it makes you wonder if he's been stricken with the bug that's been making its way around the Jets' room for the past couple months. It sure looked like it.
• One of the best parts of the beat is the interesting people you meet along the way. Sunday afternoon in Washington goes to the top of the list. Sitting in a restaurant near the White House having lunch, I got to chatting with another patron beside me. Turns out she's an FBI agent. I quickly removed my sports writer's hat and put on my old crime-reporting lid for plenty of interesting talk about our respective careers. We swapped business cards. Fascinating insight.
• Not so enjoyable: The occasional terrifying Uber drivers, like the guy in D.C. who went the wrong way down a one-way street, then pulled the craziest U-turn I've ever seen.
• The unsung heroes of any hockey team are the equipment guys who never fail to amaze me in how quickly they get the gear packed up and ready to load onto the bus. Take Sunday night, for example. In the time it took me to get down from the press box to the Jets locker room following the final buzzer — I'd say six minutes at most, as there was a bit of a wait for the elevator — the majority of the bags were already stacked and ready to go. Impressive.
• Saturday afternoon in Washington and Patrik Laine is surrounded by a swarm of media, naturally wanting to ask him about playing his hockey idol once again. Laine's buddy, Nikolaj Ehlers, walks by. "Hey Patty, is Ovie your favourite player?" Ehlers shouts. "No, you are," Laine says without missing a beat.
• Laine also lost a team shootout competition during Saturday's practice, and his punishment was having to serve Gatorade to the winners. Both Sami Niku and Nathan Beaulieu went so far as to make him open their bottles for them. Yeah, they were milking it to the last drop. "I'm not going to waste my goals in a shootout," was Laine's explanation.
• Maurice had everyone in stitches Saturday as he replied to my question about Laine's play since moving on to the top line. Maurice used the term "A-hole" to describe the spot Laine moved in to, then realized what he'd said. "I think I'm going to blush on that one," said the red-faced coach, who then exited stage right, with a quick: "OK, we're done today."
• I know some loved it, and some hated it. I'm indifferent to Adam Lowry taunting Carolina with the Storm Surge overhead clap at the end of Friday night's 8-1 victory. I'm on record as loving what the Hurricanes are doing to celebrate home-ice victories, but if you're going to dish it out, you also have to be able to take it.
• It's easy to see why Tampa Bay is a prime destination for free agents. A generous tax rate that stretches your dollar a lot further, some of the best year-round weather and scenery you'll find in the NHL, a top-notch rink and, of course, having the best team in hockey, to boot.
• With the Jets enjoying a day off after their Tampa game, I got to sneak to Dunedin for a few hours the next day and catch some Blue Jays spring training baseball. I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon on the road. A few observations: Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who went 1-for-4 that day, is a very large man. Aaron Sanchez looked great on the mound and should have a big season if he can avoid his usual blister issues. Young prospects Anthony Alford and Cavan Biggio really stood out. Dunedin Stadium is showing its age and could use a bit of a makeover. I should have worn sunscreen. And now back to hockey...
• Goalies are weird, exhibit No. 11,836: Connor Hellebuyck after getting cut by a Nikita Kucherov blast to his head: "They wanted to stitch, but I told them just to glue it, it gives me a better scar and I like the scars that I get."
• Was interesting to see an NHL hockey player through the eyes of those who helped him get to the big leagues, which I did at the start of the trip in Columbus. Got to spend a few minutes with Jack Roslovic's mother, former junior coach, agent and other family and friends in their suite at Nationwide Arena before watching the hometown boy skate with the Jets. Their pride and joy was evident.
• The cannon in Columbus comes as advertised — and then some. My ears are still ringing from the three mighty blasts that night. One at the start of the game, and one each after the two Blue Jackets goals. You can brace for it all you want, but it still makes you jump out of your seat.
• Roslovic had a funny take about going out for a team dinner on the first day of the road trip. "It’s always good on the road, the road’s a place where the guys can bond, you’re away from your families so not everyone’s going home. Everyone’s going to the same places, you see each other a lot more. It’s funny, even at the end of the this nine-day road trip, I know guys will be getting tired of each other so it will be getting a little tense. But that’s what brings us closer together, that’s why going on the road is fun."
It is fun, for sure. But it's also good to be home, sweet home.
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.