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Criticize the Winnipeg Jets all you want — and I’ll be the first to admit to doing so at times this season. Hey, it comes with the territory of playing in a hockey-mad market where expectations have never been higher.
But despite some very average play of late, I’m here to give the local club plenty of credit for seemingly always finding a way to prevent a few cuts and scratches from turning into a full-blown flesh wound.
The latest example of this went down Sunday afternoon in Buffalo to wrap-up a three-game road trip that was on the verge of being a disaster. Winnipeg had been pounded in two straight games on the road by inferior opponents in Montreal and Ottawa, looking nothing like a team poised for a lengthy playoff run this spring.
But, like they always seem to do, these Jets quickly stopped the bleeding before it got out of control.
Sure, it may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing performance, but they found a way to take two points from a Sabres squad that is desperately fighting for its playoff lives, having got off to a roaring start this season only to recently fall beneath the line.
Consider this: Winnipeg has not lost three straight regulation games at any point this season. Or last regular-season either. Every time they drop two straight, they’ve bounced back with a win.
That’s impressive, and speaks to a team being able to grab a bandage and apply some pressure to the wound when required.
Just look at how Winnipeg got it done in Buffalo. They showed plenty of poise, confidence and patience — at a time when you might have thought all would be in short supply given recent events — in waiting out their opponent and eventually jumping on a mistake in the waning minutes of the game.
That’s what good teams do. That’s what Stanley Cup contenders do.
Not surprisingly, it was the top line that came through. Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele have not looked themselves lately, especially in those games in Montreal and Ottawa where they got absolutely dominated.
Along with linemate Kyle Connor, the trio was a combined minus-14. That’s a number we expect on the thermometer in February, not from one of the most talented trios in hockey.
But like star players are expected to do when the going really gets tough, Wheeler and Scheifele found a way. The captain scored the winner with under four minutes to play, then fed Scheifele for an empty-net goal.
Rinse, repeat. It’s a familiar script to one that’s played out a few times already this year, including a pair of December wins over San Jose and Vancouver where that line broke ties in the final minutes of the games to snatch victories on the road.
“That comes with a little bit of experience, that confidence factor. We had some success with that in the playoffs, having to stay patient in tough environments and tough games. When you know that you’ve done it in the past and had success doing it, it comes a little bit easier to stay in those games and stay a little bit more patient and not try and open things up,” Wheeler said in Buffalo.
“Really, in this league, a lot of nights the difference comes down to that. The team that is able to stay with their game plan and force the other team to make that extra mistake or to try and make that extra little play that isn’t there, that’s where you capitalize.”
It easy to forget sometimes that these Jets are one of the youngest teams in the NHL. As a result, there’s bound to be plenty of growing pains along the way. We’re certainly seeing that in spades right now with Patrik Laine in the worst slump of his career.
Coach Paul Maurice told me something interesting earlier in the trip, following his team’s practice in Ottawa. In a nutshell, the bench boss doesn’t want things to come easy to his players. He wants them to struggle at times, and then to find a way to fight through it and get back on track.
It’s an interesting perspective, but one he believes will ultimately pay off down the road. Call it resilient. Call it having their mettle tested.
“We’ve found a way to come back and find a way to win games. Typically, if we lose one or even two, then we win four or five straight. It was something that we obviously talked about before the game. This was something we haven’t gone through and we’ve got to handle it the right way. I think there’s a lot we can be proud of with how we played,” Wheeler said of the response in Buffalo.
It makes sense, really. This entire season is starting to feel like a dress rehearsal for the real drama that will begin in early April. Winnipeg is a lock to make the playoffs, and they’ve been in a comfortable position near or at the top of the Central Division for pretty much the whole year.
Having to overcome some obstacles could just be the best thing for them. Getting embarrassed by Montreal, then following that up with a three-goal defeat to the NHL’s worst team in Ottawa, is a good reminder of just how much work is still ahead.
Complacency and over-confidence are the enemy of good teams. There’s nothing wrong with being humbled a bit from time-to-time.
“It’s not like we’re losing a bunch. We just go through a little adversity and it’s good in this locker room. It just shows guys have to dig in a little deeper and that’s when you come closer as a team,” goalie Connor Hellebuyck said following the Buffalo game, in which he certainly did his part to help his team bounce back.
Near the end of his scrum, there was a bit of a revealing moment when a Buffalo reporter asked the Jets No. 1 goaltender if it felt good to snap the team’s slump.
“I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a slump,” Hellebuyck quickly shot back.
Perhaps by Winnipeg’s lofty standards, the scribe clarified.
“Yeah, that’s a good point. I don’t know if I’d use that term,” Hellebuyck continued. “Let’s keep the fans happy and excited about this one, and excited about where we’re going.”
Ah yes, the future. Where the Jets are no doubt hoping some of the battle scars they’re accumulating along the way will ultimately put them in great shape when the going really gets tough.
They just might want to keep a few more Band-Aids nearby. Just in case.
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.