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This article was published 15/4/2015 (1586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two characteristics about Paul Maurice that worked in his favour when Kevin Cheveldayoff came calling in January of 2014:
- He had significant National Hockey League head-coaching experience with Hartford, Carolina and Toronto, and the Winnipeg Jets needed a veteran voice. And, more importantly...
- He was available.
Still, when Maurice was parachuted in to replace Claude Noel on Jan. 12, 2014, it had "interim" written all over it. A let's-wait-to-see-how-this-turns-out feel with no guarantees beyond the final regular-season contest.
Interesting, then, to stroll through the Jets dressing room over the last few days — actually, just about any day since Maurice came aboard — in the search for answers to the turnaround. Dig down below the clichés and Maurice's name is never far removed from any discussion as to how this franchise went from also-ran to contender.
And he's also the central figure as to why this team has such a quiet confidence as Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs approaches.
"He's the biggest factor looking at where we are today," said Blake Wheeler. "He changed everything. He just brought what we needed to our team. The way he communicates, the way he coaches is just a perfect fit for our group. He realized what we are, what we're not... his sense of humour fits in with what we are as a group.
"It was the perfect hire."
Maurice has spoken often over the last year-and-a-half about how he has changed as a coach over the years. He was just 28 when he replaced Paul Holmgren as the head coach of the Hartford Whalers in 1995, and in the two decades since — including a stretch in the KHL — has come to appreciate every nanosecond the gig provides.
But asked to comment on his impact with the Jets and how he has evolved, and he quickly backs away from the spotlight.
"One answer would be I learned not to talk about myself," Maurice deadpanned. "And then we'll leave it at that."
Prodded to play along, Maurice spoke about how the league and the game have changed. He touched on how his days in Russia taught him to appreciate European players and the challenges they face in North America.
Most of all, he's matured. And maybe, too, has the team he is now coaching.
"I enjoy this a whole lot more than I did in the past," said Maurice. "I enjoy coming to the rink. I enjoy the players, their personalities...
"I liked my first answer better."
Maurice & Co. enter the post-season with very little to lose. No matter how this turns out — outside of a first-round sweep — the Jets will be seen as an organization on the rise after a season in which they set a franchise record for points and have drawn rave reviews for their prospect pool.
But there is hardly a just-happy-to-be-here feel from this team.
"We have a lot of guys that are a little green when it comes to playoff experience but I think we use that as a positive," said Wheeler. "We obviously have a group that is excited to be here and be a part of it. But we're here for a reason, and it's because of how we play and the things we've bought into. So, we don't need to reinvent right now. We just need to stick to what we do.
"When times are tough it's easy to say what you will about different people. Everyone's taken their shots and everyone here has probably had the chance to say one thing or another. But I know these guys as people. I know them off the ice. I know their wives, their families, I know where they come from.
"When you have that relationship with people and you know what they stand for and what they're capable of... I knew we were going to get there. I don't know if I thought it was going to be this fast, but you bring in Paul Maurice, you bring in some guys to help us out and here we are. It's gratifying to get to this point, but there's no satisfaction, that's for sure."
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FIVE REASONS THE JETS WILL WIN
1. THE MAN IN THE BLUE PAINT
It seems improbable to be tapping these words into my laptop today as a playoff spot did in October, but the Jets are in the post-season — and a trendy pick to advance — because of the work of the beleaguered Ondrej Pavelec in a critical chunk of the regular season.
If you stick to the adage that goaltenders are mammoth come playoff time — and their names are all over the Conn Smythe Trophy — then Pavelec's recent numbers ought to be inspiring. He was 9-2-1 in his last 12 starts and, when his team needed him most in the final week of the regular season, stopped all 83 shots he faced and posted three shutouts in a 2-0-1 road trip that propelled them into the playoffs.
All that said, pro hockey can be a cruel business and, for all the work Pavelec has done of late, there is a legitimate fear among some a regression is on the horizon. But if he can carry his team into the playoffs, the Pavelec narrative may have to be rewritten.
2. A BALANCED ATTACK
The Jets finished the regular season with 11 players notching 10 or more goals: Blake Wheeler (26); Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little (24); Michael Frolik (19), Drew Stafford, Mathieu Perreault, Dustin Byfuglien (18); Lee Stempniak and Mark Scheifele (15); Jiri Tlusty (14) and Adam Lowry (11).
This is particularly significant beyond the obvious reasons, because for most of their reincarnation in Winnipeg the Jets have been a one-line hockey club. But when the foot soldiers contribute — as have bottom-six forwards Lowry, Stempniak, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn of late — the vise is loosened on the top two lines to produce exclusively every night. That's what has made the trade-deadline acquisitions of Tlusty and Stempniak so important over the last serveral weeks.
3. EVERYTHING TO GAIN VS. EVERYTHING TO LOSE
The Ducks, for all their regular-season success over the last three years, have nada to show for it come playoff time. Head coach Bruce Boudreau is under enormous pressure, as is GM Bob Murray and the core talent group that includes Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. Anaheim is built for the right here and right now, and with that comes the potentially crushing weight of expectation.
The Jets, on the other hand, enter the playoffs as an underdog with a legit puncher's chance. They are the Rocky Balboa of this series; the Ducks in the role of Apollo Creed, and that kind of freedom to just swing away could be invigorating. There's also this: The Jets have survived their all-out push to the playoffs with few significant injuries — outside of the uncertainty surrounding Mathieu Perreault — and have essentially been in post-season mode for weeks, if not months.
4. RECHARGED VETS
The Jets aren't the only NHL team to make significant moves around the trade deadline, but it could be argued none have had a bigger impact than what Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers have provided since coming aboard from Buffalo. Stafford has played both left and right wing and has found a comfortable home alongside Scheifele and Wheeler, scoring nine goals and 19 points in 26 games, while averaging 3.1 points in 60 even-strength minutes over the last 15 games.
Myers, meanwhile, has been a top-pairing defenceman for the Jets, playing with both Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot while chewing up big minutes.
He is an excellent defender and has given the Jets another power-play weapon and a touch of offence from the blue-line.
5. A STORM IS COMING
Every team in every sport — hockey, football, baseball, basketball — prattles on and on about home-ice/field/turf advantage once the calendar flips to the post-season. But given the backdrop here in Winnipeg — city loses NHL team, gets it back — could home ice ever mean more than it does here right now? This city hasn't played host to a Stanley Cup playoff game since 1996. Games 3 and 4 will be absolute bedlam, and if the Jets can harness that even a little bit, the series could turn in their favour.