LAS VEGAS — "Stay in the fight. Just stay in the fight. We’ve just got to stay in the fight."
I’ve been hearing that a lately around the Winnipeg Jets, who seem to be relishing their seemingly overnight transition from NHL heavyweights to scrappy underdogs.
After all, it wasn’t long ago the local lads were seen as legitimate Stanley Cup favourites. Now, they’re viewed by many pundits as the hockey equivalent of washed-up boxer turned longshoreman Terry Malloy, famously played by Marlon Brando, in On The Waterfront.
"I coulda been a contender," might soon replace "Fuelled By Passion" as the team’s official motto.
So, it was perhaps fitting that one of the signature moments of a young season already filled with surprises came Saturday night in Las Vegas, a city with a storied history in the sweet science.
In this case, it wasn’t a much-hyped bout inside the squared circle at MGM Grand that had tongues wagging. Rather, it was a bare-knuckled brouhaha on the ice at T-Mobile Arena.
Jets forward Adam Lowry, fresh off a two-game suspension for a dirty hit-from-behind on Calgary’s Oliver Kylington last weekend in Regina, blasted Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch with a hard hit that left him dazed and confused in the second period.
What followed was something right out of the old-school hockey playbook.
On the ensuing shift, Vegas enforcer (and Winnipeg product) Ryan Reaves was sent over the boards by coach Gerard Gallant. The purpose was clear, especially when Reaves lined up opposite Lowry at centre, a position he probably hasn’t played since peewee.
The puck was dropped. And the gloves came off.
"He let me get the faceoff, and I had been struggling in the faceoff circle, so I appreciated that," Lowry joked after the game.
Lowry held his own against Reaves, arguably the most dangerous dude in the league when it comes to chucking knuckles, getting in a few licks before the men in stripes broke it up. The Jets bench, which looked rather lethargic up until that point, suddenly came alive.
Wouldn’t you know it, the Jets came off the canvas and turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 overtime victory, capping off a rather improbable 24 hours in which they put four valuable points in the bank and got back above .500 with a 8-7-0 record.
Lowry didn’t factor in the scoring, just as he hasn’t all season. But he was the game’s first star in the eyes of his teammates and coaches.
"That’s the kind of stuff you win with right there. So hell of a job by Adam Lowry," said captain Blake Wheeler.
"We went through a lull there in the second. Lowry’s fight, that was an incredible fight by him and got us fired up. It was great to see that. And we came out in the third, knowing that we had something to prove. That was just an incredible comeback and testament to our team, that kind of character," added Kyle Connor, who scored the overtime winner to go with a pair of assists on third-period goals by Mathieu Perreault and Mark Scheifele which tied the game.
"Everybody in this room will tell you they’re pretty fired up after that. The courage in him to accept that fight and let alone win it, too, that’s big."
Hogwash, you might say. What does tossing a few punches have to do with finding a way to win a hockey game, where speed and skill rule the day? I’ve often wondered that myself, and the fact fighting is on a steep decline in the NHL suggests it’s mostly an afterthought these days.
But in his post-game availability late Saturday night, coach Paul Maurice provided some interesting food for thought, describing in great detail how Lowry’s actions resonated around his young team, and why this all was actually a very big deal.
“... there’s a bunch of guys that will never have to do what Adam Lowry did, right? Throws a bit hit, he’s gotta stand up for it. That’s as tough a guy as there is in the league. And do the right thing.” — Jets head coach Paul Maurice
"My belief is, you’ve now got guys who will spend their entire careers and never have to fight. I’m not complaining about that or advocating against it either way. But there’s a bunch of guys that will never have to do what Adam Lowry did, right? Throws a bit hit, he’s gotta stand up for it. That’s as tough a guy as there is in the league. And do the right thing," Maurice said.
"That’s why the comeback was important. We’ve got a whole bunch of guys who’ll never have to do that, but Adam’s a teammate. So they’ve got to do something else. They gotta battle a little harder on pucks on the wall, they gotta make another play. That’s the way your teammate shows respect for what Adam did. So I’d like to think that was the singular reason that we found the energy in the third period to battle back and win it."
The Jets, of course, have been doing a lot of battling this year, such as Friday night in San Jose when they were outshot 53-19 yet downed the Sharks 3-2, thanks to Connor Hellebuyck’s heroics in net.
And after quickly falling behind by a pair of goals on Saturday night in Sin City, then losing defenceman Tucker Poolman to an upper-body injury which further depleted their lineup, I suspected we might see the Jets throw in the towel against a talented Golden Knights club.
Instead, they got off the ropes and seemingly got stronger.
"Stay in the fight. We all know what’s going on around the league in terms of the comeback game, you’re not out of it. But on back to back nights and when you get down to five defencemen, after the first period, that was a pretty gutsy effort," said Maurice.
It’s worth noting Gallant thought Lowry should have been given a major and tossed, but the officials didn’t deem his hit as even worthy of a minor. Nor did the NHL, which took a look at the play and ruled it didn’t warrant any supplemental discipline.
"I think it’s just a good, hard hit on Tuch and unfortunately, he was hurt on the play. I respect that. It’s (Reaves’) job and his role. We’re down in the game. I would want some guys to answer the bell if they hit one of our guys and they were hurt. I don’t really have any issues with him coming out there," said Lowry, who will be in the lineup Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place when the Jets kick off a four-game homestand against the New Jersey Devils.
It’s only a matter of time before the Jets get knocked down again. But based on what we’ve seen, is anyone doubting their ability get back up?
"This team is never going to give up. I think our teams the last couple years, it’s come a little bit easier for us. We roll out of bed and put a four or five on the scoreboard, you know what I mean. Now it’s different, now we really gotta fight for every inch of ice," said Wheeler.
"Having to live that in October or November is not such a bad lesson. You become hardened, you learn how to grind. Ultimately when the games really count at the end of the season that’s how you’re going to have to play. Our team’s learning how to do that. What a great makeup to have, to know you’re never out of a game. This group’s obviously done that this year, so it’s a pretty good feeling."
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.