Amidst the pomp and circumstance of Blake Wheeler’s monumental 1,000th NHL game Sunday night, the Winnipeg Jets captain made a short remark embedded within a longer, post-game reply that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The 35-year-old winger told reporters he’s just beginning to appreciate the significance of the milestone but is far more excited about what the immediate future holds for the Jets and the role he’ll play in their success.
"You don’t spend too much time reflecting, you don’t spend too much time down memory lane," Wheeler said. ‘I think the best is yet to come, you know what I mean. I feel that way about our group, and that’s where my focus is on, just having a blast with this team."
The 14-year veteran, the sole survivor of an Atlanta Thrashers team that was swiftly relocated to the Manitoba capital in 2011, mentioned something else.
The group’s reliance on team toughness.
"We take care of each other, like you saw tonight. They took care of me and performed, and we got a hell of a win. It was a great night," he said.
Dangerously close to coughing up a two-goal lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs after 40 minutes, the Jets battened down the hatches, defensively and combatively, to seal their second victory of the weekend, improving to 12-8-4 and rising to second place in the Central Division.
The Jets erupted for a pile of goals, winning 6-3, but also demonstrated they wouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied into submission by a frustrated Leafs squad.
The pushback came with a cost.
Head coach Paul Maurice must tinker with his blue-line corps after Neal Pionk was suspended Monday for two games by the NHL’s department of player safety for kneeing Toronto defenceman Rasmus Sandin about six minutes into the third period.
No penalty was called on the play. Sandin limped off the ice and did not return. Pionk will forfeit $58,750, with the money going to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
Nathan Beaulieu is on the roster as the extra defenceman, but look for the Jets to recall someone from the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
Out for retribution, Leafs forward Jason Spezza took a run at Pionk and caught him with a knee to the head. Spezza will have an in-person hearing Tuesday with the league’s disciplinarians.
While Toronto fans and Winnipeg supporters joust on social media about which side deserved blame, it’s fair to say each gets an equal share of the bad blood that spilled over, likely the residual effects of last season’s 10-game regular-season series in the all-Canadian division.
The Jets haven’t employed a resident enforcer for several seasons. Chris Thorburn was the last to carry the label during the 2016-17 season when he dropped the gloves 13 times and amassed 95 penalty minutes. Gone-but-not-forgotten pugilist Anthony Peluso played parts of four seasons (2012-16) in Winnipeg and engaged in 20 scraps.
On Sunday, Maurice repeated a message that’s been the team’s mantra the last five years.
"We have enough (toughness), right?" he said. "If you go back to when I first got here, you think about how much different the game was. You’ve got Anthony Peluso, Mark Stuart, Thorbie, Evander Kane was a tough dude. You’d have all kinds of it but so did everybody else and it’s kind of gone away.
"There’s not really a place for that. But we’ve got enough, for sure, that we can take care of our own."
Winnipeg centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, the aggressor, wrestled with Auston Matthews, and both received roughing minors. Three minutes later, Leafs rambunctious forward Wayne Simmonds cross-checked Jansen Harkins and was assessed a penalty, but he refused to go quietly and was tagged with a 10-minute misconduct.
On Monday, Simmonds was fined $2,250 by the NHL’s department of player safety for the cross-check.
Mark Scheifele split a pair of defenders and beat goalie Joseph Woll to score a power-play goal at 8:14, giving the Jets a three-goal cushion. From that point on, skill gave way to hostility.
Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon and Kyle Clifford engaged in a fierce scrap, Harkins and Michael Bunting nearly came to blows, and then Simmonds returned late to smack Josh Morrissey with a foolish cross-check, sparking retribution from Logan Stanley. No fists actually connected but the 6-7 blue-liner glided off the ice with his arms raised in the air, generating a roar from the crowd.
"The game itself just got out of hand," Matthews told reporters. "It was a bit of a snowball effect. Things just kind of spiralled out of control, it wasn’t really hockey in the third period. It was just a bit of a gong show."
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).