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What a difference a year makes.
Twelve months ago, they were a group of relatively inexperienced young bucks trying to become big-game hunters. Now, they are set to be the hunted, carrying targets on their backs while trying to remain among the leaders of the pack.
It’s a challenge the Winnipeg Jets appear to welcome as the NHL gets ready to declare open season later this week.
“You get teams a little more amped up. It’s like a couple years ago, I remember every time we’d go into Chicago you’re ready for those games because you know what can happen if they get moving and get the puck moving and we’re kind of standing still. So, I think you’ll see teams more prepared coming in to play us, bringing their A game,” defenceman Ben Chiarot said this weekend.
“Teams know what our rink is like now and how intimidating it can be. That’s a good thing, it kind of hardens us to play against other teams’ best.”
‘That’s life in the Central… You have to be ready every night’— Jets blue-liner Ben Chiarot
Winnipeg won’t be taking anyone by surprise this year, not after finishing second overall in the standings last season and getting to the Western Conference final. Not returning with nearly an identical lineup, now with a big year of battle-tested experience under their belts. And not with the majority of pundits declaring them one of the favourites to win it all.
“Every team pretty much goes into the season wanting to win the Stanley Cup. That has to be our goal. Obviously, there’s a lot of stepping stones to get to that next step. But it all starts at practice, with our workouts, what we’re doing day-to-day. We have to continue to push with the end goal in mind of obviously winning that Stanley Cup,” centre Mark Scheifele said.
“You have to go into every game knowing you have to be at your A game to beat the team on the other side of the rink. Our focus has to be on playing the game right. Right from Game 1 and continuing to push for more right through Game 82. If we continue to push and continue to get better as a team and grow as a team, we know we’ll be where we want to be.”
Winnipeg will get right into the thick of things off the hop, beginning the new campaign Thursday night in St. Louis against a revamped Blues squad many predict will be one of the most improved in the league.
Then, it’s on to Dallas against the always- dangerous Stars, the home opener against the Los Angeles Kings followed by a quick trip to Nashville to take on the potent Predators.
“Yeah, that’s just life in the Central. You can win five in a row and there’s someone right behind you that’s been doing the same. You have to be ready every night, you have to be on your game. You can’t have any lapses or weeks where your team’s kind of floundering,” Chiarot said.
The Jets used Sunday for off-ice meetings and video sessions and return to the ice this morning to prepare for the tough road ahead.
There were 24 players on the ice Saturday, while three remained sidelined. Defenceman Logan Stanley and forward Michael Spacek have minor injuries and will be sent down to the Manitoba Moose once healthy, while forward Nic Petan remains away from the team indefinitely following the sudden death of his father.
Petan is likely headed for some kind of non-roster bereavement designation, according to head coach Paul Maurice.
“I don’t know if I can explain the intricacies of it. But there’s a provision for a situation like this. So, he would be a non-roster player, and then it’s handled case-by-case with the league. So, there is a way for them to navigate,” said Maurice, who didn’t know when Petan could return to Winnipeg.
“So, for the first question, how long has it been since Nic’s been on the ice. And then what happens in terms of, you know, it’s professional hockey, you’re not stepping in the next day and into the lineup. There’s questions with that. The league and the (players’ association) have ways to deal with this.”
That could mean only one other cut is necessary to get the Jets down to the 23-player maximum by Tuesday’s deadline.
Tucker Poolman and Brendan Lemieux would be the most likely candidates, as neither requires waivers to be sent down to the Moose. The decision may come down to whether Maurice wants to begin the year with two extra forwards and one extra blue-liner, or one forward and two defencemen.
It’s no surprise Saturday’s skate had a noticeable change in pace and urgency, one day after a slew of roster cuts left them closely resembling the final product.
“Everybody comes into camp really excited, it’s a new year. About day 10 to 12, some of the shine comes off training camp. Getting a good day off (Friday) after almost the heaviest grind of the year for them. So, they come back to the rink feeling stronger, and then they get out and know their lines and most of the drills, so everything moves quite a bit faster. And now, they’re starting to feel the urgency to prepare,” Maurice said.
Chiarot pointed to captain Blake Wheeler as the major motivating factor in getting the team ready.
“He practices 100 miles an hour. I think that he expects that of everyone else in the room. You see that intensity come out in practice. I think that’s a big reason why we had success last year, it’s the way we practice. It’s intense, it’s game-like. It’s a culture thing that we have, practice the way you play,” Chiarot said. “The physicality and the intensity, that really picks up during the regular season. So, you want to get that going come Thursday.”
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.