Great expectations

Intense pressure on this year’s Jets expedition

It is marked down in the record books as the 29th win of their 2017-18 regular-season, a 5-4 overtime victory over the hometown San Jose Sharks on Jan. 23, which many of you may have already forgotten about.

But it says right here that particular night — officially Game No. 49 of the calendar — represented something much bigger than two more points in the standings for the surging Winnipeg Jets.

I had gone down into the bowels of SAP Center when the third-period ended, knowing post-game interviews were going to start pretty much as soon as this one ended due to some unusual circumstances.

The Jets weren’t just facing a formidable foe in the Sharks. They were also up against a city-imposed flight curfew meant to cull late-night noise in the residential neighbourhood the airport was situated in. They were facing a potential fine if their charter to Anaheim, where they were going to practice the next day, couldn’t get airborne in time.

And so there I was at rinkside, standing behind then-backup goalie Michael Hutchinson in the tunnel leading out to the ice surface, when Bryan Little did his part by scoring just 18 seconds into the three-on-three extra frame.

Winnipeg Jets’ Bryan Little (centre) celebrates his overtime goal with teammates Nikolaj Ehlers (27) and Dustin Byfuglien (33) in an NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks last season in San Jose, Calif. Winnipeg won 5-4. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / The Associated Press)

Winnipeg Jets’ Bryan Little (centre) celebrates his overtime goal with teammates Nikolaj Ehlers (27) and Dustin Byfuglien (33) in an NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks last season in San Jose, Calif. Winnipeg won 5-4. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / The Associated Press)

It was the team’s first overtime win in seven tries on the year. And it prompted a wild scene. The jubilant players poured off the ice, hugging and high-fiving as they hustled to the dressing room.

Brandon Tanev seemed to be airborne the entire time. Coach Paul Maurice was pretty much in a full sprint while shouting something about getting to the airport. Little did a quick interview as he was tearing his equipment off while frantic team staff packed up the bags as quickly as possible, joking that it reminded him of his minor hockey days when his parents would tell him to hurry up after a game.

And when the dust settled, you got the sense this was no ordinary triumph for a team that had already enjoyed plenty of success up to that point.

There was something special happening here. And this was the first time, at least in my eyes, that we really began to see it unfold in a tangible way.

The Jets were into their fourth week without injured No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele, but weren’t simply just treading water. Their third win in four nights, in their third different city and third different time zone, had them knocking on the door of the NHL’s elite teams.

And knocking off the Sharks, a perennial Western Conference powerhouse, suggested these new kids on the block were a force to be reckoned with.

The club would go 23-7-3 from that night on — including five more games without a regulation defeat — finish second-overall in the NHL standings and make it all the way to the final four before ultimately falling to the Vegas Golden Knights, just three wins short of reaching their first-ever Stanley Cup final.

Winnipeg came alive with Whiteouts and street parties and seemingly enough goodwill to last a lifetime. It was a pretty magical time in our city’s history.

Jets fans arrive at Donald Street for the whiteout street party in Winnipeg on Monday, May 7, 2018. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Jets fans arrive at Donald Street for the whiteout street party in Winnipeg on Monday, May 7, 2018. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Which brings us to the all-important question: what will this team do for an encore?

Most of the same faces are back. Everyone has another year of experience, especially of the playoff variety, under their belts. Some of the young stars seem poised to take another step. Blake Wheeler, the heart and soul of the team, just signed an extension that should see him end his career in Winnipeg. There are some exciting prospects waiting in the wings.

And expectations — in Winnipeg, around the NHL and certainly within the dressing room — have never been higher.

This time a year ago, the Jets were viewed by the majority as a team that would compete for a spot in the post-season dance. But you would have been hard-pressed to find many who thought they’d make as much noise as they did.

Now, for the first time since the Jets relocated from Atlanta in 2011, simply making the playoffs won’t be enough. This is a team that is built to go deep. Anything less than another lengthy run next spring will be viewed, rightfully, as a big step back.

It’s certainly not going to be easy. One only needs to look at recent editions of the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators as teams that seemingly had big breakthrough years and playoff success, only to follow it up by soiling the sheets the following year.

Several Winnipeg players have already mentioned guarding against that during chats over the past week at Bell MTS Iceplex, where they’ve been running informal group skates. You get the sense they know how high the stakes are and are doing everything in their power to prepare for what’s to come.

The Jets don’t get any kind of head start over anyone else because of what they did last year. They’ll start the season with the same record as the other 30 teams in the league. If anything, they now have a target on their backs.

Remember when it seemed so many other teams used to start their backup goalies against Winnipeg? Yeah, those days are gone. Nobody is going to take these Jets for granted. They’ll view these games as a litmus test to see how they stack up, kind of like how Winnipeg used to whenever they’d face off against a Chicago or Los Angeles or Pittsburgh.

Will there be another defining moment this coming season, like that one last winter in the Shark Tank, where it seems like everything is coming together? Or will the weight of being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender prove to be too much to handle?

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers (27), Mark Scheifele (55), Dustin Byfuglien (33) and Patrik Laine (29) celebrate Byfuglien's goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during first period of game one action in the NHL Western Conference Final in Winnipeg on Saturday, May 12, 2018. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Winnipeg Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers (27), Mark Scheifele (55), Dustin Byfuglien (33) and Patrik Laine (29) celebrate Byfuglien’s goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during first period of game one action in the NHL Western Conference Final in Winnipeg on Saturday, May 12, 2018. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

You can bank on there being some bumps in the road, maybe even as early as the first week of the year, which features stops in St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville. That’s a tough way to start a new season. No doubt those Central Division rivals will be looking to get some target practice in right off the hop.

You’ll recall last year didn’t exactly start off smoothly, with lopsided losses to Toronto and Calgary to kick off the campaign. But this group quickly showed resilience in swatting away that early adversity.

Expect more of the same this year. This group is simply too talented, too deep and too motivated to go off the rails. They know their window of opportunity is now wide open. And Wheeler’s leadership can’t be understated. He is the driving force of this team and seems to be on a mission to sip from hockey’s Holy Grail before he hangs up his blades.

Does it end with a Stanley Cup parade down Portage Avenue next June? Obviously so much will have to go right for that to happen, and history shows us the best team on paper, or during the regular season, doesn’t always win.

But these Jets are well-equipped to handle any turbulence that comes their way and potentially soar to new heights.

Buckle up.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg


Talent-laden roster, rabid fans head back to starting line

The spontaneous combustion of one of the world’s premier goalies likely had Winnipeg Jets fans believing a supernatural force was guiding their team’s remarkable run to the NHL’s 2017-18 Western Conference final.

Slipping out of Bridgestone Arena just before midnight on Thursday, May 10, a similar thought blitzed my brain. To be precise, it was more of a question: How’d they make Pekka Rinne look so bloody bad in his own barn with the series knotted 3-3?

Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny (right) celebrates after teammate Tyler Myers scored a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (left) during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Also defending for the Predators was Roman Josi (59), of Switzerland. (Mark Humphrey / The Associated Press files)

Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny (right) celebrates after teammate Tyler Myers scored a goal against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (left) during the first period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. Also defending for the Predators was Roman Josi (59), of Switzerland. (Mark Humphrey / The Associated Press files)

After being pulled early in games 1 and 3 of the best-of-seven, second-round NHL playoff series, the Nashville Predators’ veteran netminder was gone by the 11-minute mark of the first period, the quickest exit by a starting goalie in the history of NHL Game 7s.

The Jets jumped on him for a pair of ugly goals, a sharp-angle shot from defenceman Tyler Myers that somehow squeaked through and then a soft backhander from since-departed centre Paul Stastny that positively should have been stopped.

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) during the NHL Western Conference Final in Winnipeg last May. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele (55) during the NHL Western Conference Final in Winnipeg last May. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Sparked by the fast start, the Jets rode the momentum to a 5-1 triumph over Nashville to win the series 4-3 and set up a meeting with the upstart Vegas Golden Knights.

“It was a fight to the end, as you saw,” centre Mark Scheifele, his usual pensive expression replaced by a boyish grin, told us afterward. “Win a game, lose a game, win a game, lose a game. It was a fun series to be part of, but it’s awesome to be on the good side of it.’’

That nightmarish start for Rinne — at the time the favourite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie (he would eventually do just that) – deepened the dream of a Stanley Cup parade down Portage Avenue for long-suffering hockey fans in the Manitoba capital.

They hastily found out the waking is the hardest part.

Vegas, the most successful expansion franchise in pro sports history, delivered the final jolt, a 2-1 win in Winnipeg on May 20 in Game 5 of the conference final to claim the series 4-1 and a spot in the Cup finale.

Just as Rinne was uncharacteristically shaky, Golden Knights masked man Marc-Andre Fleury was otherworldly in four straight victories after Winnipeg had taken Game 1, frustrating the Jets time and time again.

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-André Fleury slams the door on Jets sniper Patrik Laine in Friday’s playoff game. Fleury was outstanding in goal for Vegas throughout the playoffs. (Marc Sanchez / The Associated Press files)

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-André Fleury slams the door on Jets sniper Patrik Laine in Friday’s playoff game. Fleury was outstanding in goal for Vegas throughout the playoffs. (Marc Sanchez / The Associated Press files)

The wound of that defeat remains fresh to the thousands of white-clad fans inside Bell MTS Place who screamed their guts out and the thousands more living it up at a downtown street party. A city, a province and, once the Toronto Maple Leafs were swept aside by the Boston Bruins, a nation joined the Jets on that wild roller-coaster ride through Minnesota — where that behemoth of the blue line, Dustin Byfuglien, reigned supreme — and Tennessee.

“It was just crazy. I thought the regular season was unbelievable fan-wise, and the playoffs were a totally different experience, seeing the whole city turn white,” Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov reminisced earlier this week. “It was something special.”

Even earlier, there were plenty of signs the Jets were onto something truly special – ultimately, a franchise-best 114-point regular season (52-20-10), second only to the Preds (53-18-11—117):

Connor Hellebuyck’s dramatic turnaround season. Floundering at times during his first campaign (2016-17) as a starter, Hellebuyck went from Steve Mason’s backup on opening night to Vezina finalist by season’s end, finishing with a league-leading 44 wins, six shutouts, a 2.36 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Now, the 25-year-old from Michigan owns a new six-year, US$37-million contract, with an average annual value of $6.167 million.

Connor Hellebuyck went from Steve Mason’s backup on opening night to Vezina finalist by season’s end. (Mark Humphrey / The Associated Press files)

Connor Hellebuyck went from Steve Mason’s backup on opening night to Vezina finalist by season’s end. (Mark Humphrey / The Associated Press files)

The continued growth of young stars. Each of its first-round draft selections from 2011 to 2016 not only suited up, but made lavish contributions. Scheifele, the first pick in Jets 2.0 history back in 2011, cemented himself one of the league’s top centres; 2012 selection Jacob Trouba and ‘13 pick Josh Morrissey formed the squad’s top defensive pairing; 2014 choice Nikolaj Ehlers came up just one tally short of 30 in his third NHL year; Kyle Connor, one of two Jets’ first-rounders in 2016, shone in his first full campaign, firing 31 goals; and ‘17 Patrik Laine followed up a 36-goal rookie season with 44 more during a sensational sophomore year.

• O captain! Their captain! Blake Wheeler had been one of the league’s best-kept secrets, but all that changed last season, his second wearing the C in Winnipeg. By Christmas he was in the Hart Trophy conversation for league MVP, although he wasn’t one of the top-three vote-getters when the list was narrowed in late April. He shared the NHL lead in assists (68) and topped the league in power-play helpers (34).

The Plymouth, Minn., product finished ninth in the NHL in points (91) and was named a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award, presented to the player who exemplifies leadership on and off the ice, in the style of the hall-of-fame former Edmonton Oiler and Jets 1.0 killer.

Blake Wheeler had been one of the league’s best-kept secrets, but all that changed last season. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Blake Wheeler had been one of the league’s best-kept secrets, but all that changed last season. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

A breakthrough season, indeed, for Winnipeg but now a speck in the rear-view mirror. The Jets start from scratch this fall, just like the other 30 teams in the NHL. The band is mostly back together for 2018-19 — save for Stastny, Joel Armia and a few bit players — with head coach Paul Maurice as the smart, savvy and engaging conductor.

Already, the pundits are labelling the Jets as serious Cup contenders, while Vegas bookies have them pegged as the third choice (odds of 19-2) to prevail, behind only Toronto (13-2) and Tampa Bay (15-2). And remember, a little over two years ago The Hockey News picked the Jets to take the championship in 2019.

Lethal up front. A stalwart back end, icing the NHL’s finest right side in Trouba, Byfuglien and Myers. Stingy goaltending.

No supernatural forces required here.

The window of opportunity is thrust all the way up and, with the diligence of GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff in locking up the core, should be yawning open for several seasons. In the upcoming campaign, expect a replication of the exciting brand of hockey executed with regularity last winter, one that secures a spot well above the playoff line in the Western Conference.

Qualify along with the other 15 survivors and, as the defending Cup-champion Washington Capitals can attest, anything can happen.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

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Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

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).

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