No looking back before playoffs

That brutal recent implosion against the New York Islanders that turned certain victory into a devastating defeat? It doesn’t matter anymore.

Eight other games where third-period leads ended up as losses? Forget about them.

Going 0-for-5, all in rather painful fashion, to their inferior hockey neighbours in Minnesota? Who cares.

Patrik Laine’s extended scoring slumps? A penchant for taking bad penalties and being unable to kill them off? Costly defensive zone turnovers? Out of sight, out of mind. All of it.

That closed door, players-only meeting? Water under the bridge.

No, the Winnipeg Jets haven’t magically cured all that ails them. And yes, some of the things above most certainly cost them top spot in the Central Division, a perch they held for much of the season until it slipped away. After all, just one more measly point would have got the job done.

But would a first-round playoff matchup with the Dallas Stars, who beat the Jets in three out four games this season, really be all that much more attractive than a meeting with the St. Louis Blues, who the Jets took three of four from?

Perhaps, but continuing from the theme above, blah blah blah. It’s all just white noise now.

That’s because everything that happened during the 82-game regular season is now in the rear-view mirror. There’s nothing that can be done to change it. So, why waste another second worrying about it?

There’s now a fresh set of pavement directly in front of the Jets. Just how far they get on their post-season journey remains to be seen. But they have a golden opportunity to silence plenty of skeptics if they can quickly revert back to the form that had them pegged as an NHL powerhouse not very long ago.

One thing is certain: to a player, there seemed to be a sense of relief that the playoffs had finally arrived following Saturday night’s 4-2 victory in Glendale over the Arizona Coyotes that at least clinched home-ice advantage for the first round, which gets underway Wednesday at Bell MTS Place.

“It’s something that you can’t take for granted because it’s not an easy thing to do in this league. You learn to appreciate these opportunities a little bit more,” captain Blake Wheeler said.

“We saw what our fan base is capable of last year, so that’s what we’re going to expect this year. The biggest challenge is getting off to a good start and get on a roll, getting confidence in your room. If you’re able to do that, anything is possible. We’ve got to start from scratch again. We know our opponent is playing really well and it should be a hell of a series.”

Indeed, the Blues have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past several months, going from the basement in the NHL to a 99-point campaign in stunning fashion.

The Jets wrapped up their season series with St. Louis before Christmas, when they were still very much singing the blues and looking like a top contender for the first-overall draft pick.

Head coach Mike Yeo was fired, replaced by Craig Berube. Vladimir Tarasenko rediscovered his scoring touch. And rookie Jordan Binnington came up from the minors and looked like the second coming of Terry Sawchuk.

“We’ve never played THAT team. Right?” head coach Paul Maurice said.

“When we played them in 2018, they were a different team. So, we’re 0 and 0 in this series. You look statistically and, on the back half of 2019, they’re an elite team in the NHL.”

Starting at home in front of the Whiteout could give the Jets an emotional boost at a time they appear to need it. They stumbled down the stretch, winning just two of the final seven games, and just came off a week-long road trip to end the campaign.

“I’m not saying there’s a huge advantage in home ice in this series. We didn’t have it (last year) and beat Nashville, had it against Vegas and lost. (But) the last thing we want to do is get on another plane in three days. So this is going to be our first three day block off since, I don’t know, late January. So we’re going to use it and enjoy it and get ready,” Maurice said.

“For our team, I felt for a while, I don’t know what the exact number is, we were maybe 33-16-2 at the end of January, we had a pretty good idea we were making the playoffs. We hit a really heavy grind here, lost some key guys, and some of the fun of it, I think, came out of it for us.”

The Jets flew home from the desert on Sunday and will hit the practice ice this morning to prepare for the Blues. Maurice predicted the series is going to be a “grinder.”

Winnipeg could get a boost with the expected return of top-pairing defenceman Josh Morrissey, who’s been out since late February with a shoulder injury but participated in Saturday’s morning skate in a regular contact jersey.

They should also get an update early this week on the status of energy winger Brandon Tanev, who suffered a hand injury from being slashed in Minnesota last Tuesday.

There’s a few other positives as well, including Connor Hellebuyck’s strong play of late and some balanced scoring. And Nikolaj Ehlers has goals in two straight games after a slump and appears re-energized.

“For sure. I played some good games and some not so good games in the playoffs last year and that’s something that needs to change. I know I’m not going to be perfect from now on, but I’ve got to go out there and play 100 % for the team and when things aren’t going, you’ve got to find a way to help the team,” Ehlers said Saturday night.

“I’m excited for it and like I said, we know what we can do. We just have to go out and prove it.”

According to the captain, closing out the regular-season on a winning note – which included limiting the Coyotes to just 21 shots – gives his squad something to build on.

“You get a good feeling in our room and a lot of excitement about what is going to be a great series,” said Wheeler.

“Those guys are playing really well. Probably since the last time that we saw them, outside of Tampa Bay, they’ve had the best record in the NHL. So, we know we’ve got our work cut out for us. But at this time of the year, regardless of who you’re playing, it’s going to be really tough. So, we’re going to finally get a couple of days in our own beds and stay in the Central Time Zone for a couple of weeks.

“We’ve got to fill those streets up in Winnipeg again.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

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.

Read full biography