The soaring season

They talked the talk before the season began, making it clear the status quo wouldn’t be accepted. Failing to make the playoffs for what would be a sixth time in seven seasons since returning to Winnipeg was not an option.

And then they walked the walk once the puck dropped, putting together the best campaign in franchise history and taking fans on a wild journey that nearly ended with an appearance in the Stanley Cup final.

There’s no denying the 2017-18 season for the Winnipeg Jets was one for the ages.

But don’t just take our word for it. 

Training camp begins in mid-September. A clean slate to begin another campaign. Expectations are high. 

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “I’m very excited about how this team comes together. You can kind of feel in the locker room that we’re excited to play this season and we expect to win.”

DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN: “Everyone is that much older, wiser, a little bit more experienced. That’s all we can go on from right here. It’s just a couple days into training camp and we haven’t done nothing yet. There’s a lot of steps we’ve got to go forward to. We’ve just got to keep working.”

Winnipeg goes 2-3-2 in their seven exhibition games as roster decisions are finalized. Of note, Kyle Connor begins the year with the Manitoba Moose, Nic Petan makes the big club out of camp and free agent signing Steve Mason is awarded the No. 1 goalie job.

BLAKE WHEELER: “You’ve got one shot at having a career in this league. At a certain point in time you want to win. I’ve been trying to win for six years here. I think we’re at the point now where you see some young guys blossoming into impact players. Some of our veteran guys, some of our young guys have kinda come together to create a pretty good nucleus.”

PAUL MAURICE: “To be honest with you, I have lots of faith and confidence in the direction that we’re going. I know you look at the playoffs as a miss and that’s a failure for any team. But we made the decision to do what we’re doing. I’ve got lots of confidence in my ability and the team’s ability to get it done.”

Opening night. The hockey spotlight is on Winnipeg as the Jets host the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL’s season-opener. The hype is huge. And Winnipeg comes up very small, getting pounded 7-2.

PATRIK LAINE: “It wasn’t the way we wanted to start the season. But it’s done. That’s good news that we have still 81 games left. We just have to be lots better.”

STEVE MASON: “It wasn’t what we were looking for. Especially from my standpoint, it just wasn’t good enough.”

Coach Paul Maurice puts his troops through what appears to be a bag skate at the end of practice, clearly not happy with what he witnessed the night before.

JACOB TROUBA: “We gotta be better. I know I have to be better. We know the team has to perform better. I think we got that message.”

PAUL MAURICE: “Oh, that wasn’t even close to a bag skate. Nobody puked… if we had spent 20 more minutes at ‘er…”

A sigh of relief. Winnipeg beats Edmonton 5-2 for their first win of the season, coming off back-to-back clunkers against Toronto and then Calgary.

NIKOLAJ EHLERS: “It was big. We all knew what we needed to do. We knew what we were capable of. We didn’t do that the first two games but we showed it (against the Oilers).” 

A surprising development. Steve Mason’s struggles mean he’s parked on the bench while Connor Hellebuyck takes over, rattling off three straight wins as the Jets are finally on track.

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “I’ve been working all summer for this. I wanted to start with getting my confidence back and getting my poise back in the net. Then I got a new trainer and he was teaching me about the biomechanics and how the body moves and all that, so I was really learning how to become faster and more set, more square. It fit perfectly for my game.”

Mathieu Perreault goes down with an injury – and Kyle Connor is summoned from the Manitoba Moose.

PAUL MAURICE: “Now he gets a chance. And it’s a top-six chance and he’s going to have to work really hard to keep that. We’ve got other players there that want that opportunity, too. So he has to perform.”

Steve Mason gets another opportunity, and is shelled again in a 5-2 loss on home ice to Columbus.

JOSH MORRISSEY:  “A lot of those goals are defensive errors on our part. He’s a professional, he’s been around, a veteran guy, he handled those first couple of games awesome and there’s no issue there. We know that Steve can play and the type of goalie he is, we just need to do a better job of helping him out.”

Winnipeg routs two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh 7-1 in their most dominant performance to date, including five first-period goals.

PAUL MAURICE: “Real good jump, real good pace, good start and it was enough to win a game.”

With the Jets on a roll in early November, Dale Hawerchuk is inducted into the team’s Hall-of-Fame just before Winnipeg beats Arizona to improve to 10-4-3 on the season.

DALE HAWERCHUK: “For me, this was a special place. I would have loved to have won a (Stanley) Cup here. I’ve won Memorial Cups, Canada Cups. But if I was going to win a Stanley Cup, it would have been here. This would have been the place to do it. I hope I see it here one day.”

Winnipeg keeps things rolling with a dramatic rally, scoring in the final minute of the third period to tie the game, then pulling out a shootout win over Philadelphia. 

ADAM LOWRY: “I think that’s a real good sign of a good team. You need to find ways to win in this league, especially when you don’t necessarily have your best game.”

Winnipeg climbs to the top of the Western Conference with a 7-4 victory over Vegas, improving to 16-6-4.

BLAKE WHEELER: “It’s the first of December, we’re obviously pleased to have a good start, we’re pleased with the direction we’re headed. But I think the thing that’s given us success, it’s a cliché, but we have taken things day by day at practice to get better, each game to get better in certain areas. I don’t think we’ve peaked.”

The good times hit a bit of a skid on the road, as Winnipeg loses for a sixth straight time away from Bell MTS Place with a 2-0 loss in St. Louis.

PAUL MAURICE: “There’s a change in gears here that happens in December. Pressure starts to weigh pretty heavy on some teams. That’s all part of that learning process with the grind. This is the real NHL now. You got through the easy part and you’re into that heavier area where teams are fighting and you’ve got to learn how to do it.”

Winnipeg gets back on track a few nights later with an impressive 6-4 win in Nashville, who are looking every bit like a Stanley Cup favourite.

BLAKE WHEELER: “This is a huge win, I mean, we just gutted it out.”

No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele suffers a serious shoulder injury in their first game back after a brief Christmas break, a 4-3 win over Edmonton.

BRYAN LITTLE: “It’s never something easy to see – one of your best players on the ice like that.”

No Scheifele, no problem. Winnipeg goes on a 6-0-1 run into early January with Blake Wheeler filling in admirably up the middle.

MATHIEU PERREAULT: “It honestly kind of reminds me of the years in Washington where every time we stepped on the ice, we kind of had that feeling, that confidence, that we were just better than the other team. That hasn’t been here since I’ve been here and it’s a good feeling to have. It comes with confidence.”

Winnipeg hits their league-mandated bye week with back-to-back losses in Chicago and Minnesota in the midst of a road-heavy portion of their schedule as injuries continue to pile up.

PAUL MAURICE: “Our challenge and adversity is still ahead of us.”

Winnipeg kicks off a franchise-record 10-game homestand with a 3-1 win over Tampa Bay at the end of January despite losing top defenceman Jacob Trouba to an ankle injury days earlier. Michael Hutchinson, banished to the minors to start the year, makes his season debut with Steve Mason once again injured.

MICHAEL HUTCHINSON: “You always have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder with the way the season’s been going. But when you’re out there you don’t think about it at all. If you’re a little bit pissed off or anything, you can’t try and stop the puck harder. It’s just one of those things where you have to relax and react to it. I just felt relaxed out there.”

Vegas beats Winnipeg 3-2 in overtime in a surprising battle of the top two teams in the Western Conference. Connor Hellebuyck is livid after James Neal accidentally breaks a stick over his mask, and referees allow a goal scored second later to count.

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “I think it’s a terrible call. You would think the video replay is there for that reason. I don’t even think their team wanted that goal, obviously they’re going to take it. That’s just dirty. I can take a stick to the face. But just because I don’t throw my head back and make it obvious, I feel like I got kind of screwed on this. Maybe I should start diving a little bit, that’s just ridiculous.”

BLAKE WHEELER: “Come on, (he) f——-g breaks a stick over his head. That’s not a goal. I don’t care where the puck is.”

Mark Scheifele returns from injury after missing 16 games. Winnipeg went 11-3-2 without him. They promptly lose 5-2 to St. Louis.

PAUL MAURICE: “We were horses—t tonight. That’s a technical term for our game.”

Winnipeg avoids their first-three game losing streak of the season as Mark Scheifele ties the game with 16 seconds left, then Tyler Myers scores in overtime in a 4-3 win over Washington.

BLAKE WHEELER: “I was just really pumped for (Scheifele). No matter how self-confident you are (and you try to) block out the noise, he’s human. We win a bunch of games when he’s out, he comes back, we lose two. He probably feels that a little bit.”

Winnipeg ends their epic homestand with a 6-3-1 record after falling 4-3 to Los Angeles. They appear anxious to hit the road.

MARK SCHEIFELE: “When you’re at home for a while you kinda get into a bit of a funk just doing the same thing over and over. It can get a little redundant after a while. You get on the road, you get to be with just the guys, it’s always good to have that camaraderie on the road.”

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff makes a huge move at the trade deadline, adding veteran centre Paul Stastny plus depth defenceman Joe Morrow.

PAUL STASTNY: “I’m excited to go somewhere, when I look on paper and when I play against them how quality of a team they have. I think I can help them get even better and maybe be that piece for a long, extended run. To play more hockey for me is a big factor and it’s maybe a decision made a little easier.”

KEVIN CHEVELDAYOFF: “We felt this was a tremendous fit for our organization on many different levels.”

Winnipeg blows a two-goal lead and lose 6-5 to Nashville in a battle of NHL heavyweights to close out February. These teams never seem to have a boring game against each other.

PAUL MAURICE: “It was last shot wins.”

Winnipeg wraps up a six-game road trip with a 3-2-1 record, which includes Alex Ovechkin scoring his 600th career goal in an eventual 3-2 overtime win.

PATRIK LAINE: “I was pretty close watching it. I was in a good spot. Just behind him. I was there when he made history, so I can maybe watch that someday and show that I was there getting the minus on the ice.”

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “I definitely have an appreciation for that. I seem to be on the wrong end of all these milestones. I’m definitely going to be in some historical film.”

Winnipeg ramps up for the playoffs by going 6-0-0 on a mid-March homestand as they get closer to full health. In addition to officially clinching their post-season spot, the highlight is a Brandon Tanev hat trick in a win over Boston.

BRANDON TANEV: “It’s a special moment, an unbelievable feeling.”

In the strangest game of the season, Winnipeg loses 6-2 in Chicago — with accountant turned emergency back-up goalie Scott Foster pressed into third-period action and turning aside all seven shots he faced.

SCOTT FOSTER: “I’m going to remember this one for a long time. A few hours ago I was sitting on my computer typing on the 10-key, and now I’m standing in front of you guys just finished 14-and-a-half minutes of NHL hockey. I think I’m just about hitting my prime.”

Less than 24 hours after a horrific bus crash in Saskatchewan involving the Humboldt Broncos, Winnipeg and Chicago close out the regular-season at Bell MTS Place with an emotional game filled with tributes.

BLAKE WHEELER: “Everyone is kind of heartbroken. As players, every one of us has done what those players were doing. When things like this happen, you step back and you really appreciate what you have. Those guys were chasing the dream that all those players out there tonight and around the league have achieved. It just breaks your heart that something like this is possible.”

ANDREW COPP: “It was a very sombre mood on the ice, kind of one of those things where it could have been any one of us. You kind of count your blessings. You kind of look to the guy to your left and right, they’re not usual teammates or brothers, but you feel that sense of camaraderie and community with them.”

The Whiteout returns, and the Jets win their first playoff game in franchise history, a come-from-behind 3-2 decision over Minnesota in Game 1 on home ice. Joe Morrow is the unlikely hero, scoring the game-winner.

JOE MORROW: “If you believe in karma and trying to be a good person and eventually, you get rewarded for it? Yeah, absolutely. Like I’ve said before, I’ve had a major roller-coaster of an NHL career so far. To have a little, I don’t even know if you want to call it a Cinderella story of a night tonight, it makes you feel good. It makes all of the bad times and all of the times you’ve battled so hard to try and get an opportunity, it makes them go away. It washes them away and you get to enjoy it in front of a crowd like this and a city like this.”

Connor Hellebuyck, the back-up to start the season, is nominated for the Vezina Trophy as one of the NHL’s top three goaltenders.

STEVE MASON: “All the credit to him… I think he’s definitely matured, and at the same time we have a really good team that gives him confidence as well. We have a strong leadership group that he can feed off and learn from. I didn’t know him before this season, but I’ve definitely been impressed with the way he’s gone about this year.”

Winnipeg advances to the second round, beating Minnesota 5-0 in Game 5.

TYLER MYERS: “We had a chance to win the franchise’s first playoff series and that was a lot of motivation for us and we came out exactly the way we needed to. You see the fan base on the street outside growing and growing by game and we see the buzz in the city.”

The NHL’s top two regular-season teams, Nashville and Winnipeg, open up their series at Bridgestone Arena. Winnipeg skates away with a 4-1 victory in Game 1, thanks largely to Connor Hellebuyck’s 47 saves.

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “I just love playoffs. I love the intensity, I love the game in front of me. It’s awesome and a little different. Intense is the right way to put it.”

Kevin Fiala scores in double-overtime to send the series back to Winnipeg tied 1-1.

JOSH MORRISSEY: “We’re pretty happy that we’re coming home with a split. Obviously, we’re disappointed, but I think we’re in a pretty good spot. I just feel we can be a little bit better each game. That game, Game 2, was a big improvement from Game 1, as far as we were concerned. If we can continue to do that, we’re happy with the position we’re in.”

Winnipeg spots Nashville a 3-0 lead in Game 3 – then roars back for a wild 7-4 victory.

DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN: “I think everyone just knows you can’t quit. Never quit. Just keep working and you never know what’s going to happen.”

BLAKE WHEELER: “Momentum’s a crazy thing, especially this time of year.”

After alternating wins through the first six games of the series, Winnipeg continues the trend with an impressive 4-1 victory in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference final.

MARK SCHEIFELE: “You know, it was fun hockey. They’re an unbelievable team. Top to bottom they’re so solid. And we think we’re pretty good, too. It was a fight to the end, as you saw. It was 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.”

Winnipeg explodes for three quick first-period goals en route to a 4-2 win over the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1.

PATRIK LAINE: “We want to win every game, and now, we’re one win closer. We know the next one is going to be hard. It keeps getting harder and harder. It was nice to get the first one out of the way and just focus on the second one.”

It does indeed get harder. Winnipeg never holds another lead in the series, dropping four straight games for the first time all season. Marc-Andre Fleury steals the show while the Jets appear to be running on fumes.

MATHIEU PERREAULT: “It’s hard to believe it’s over, really. We tried so hard, too. We left it all out there. It’s so disappointing when you put so much effort into it and the result’s just not there. It’s hard to swallow … That’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports.”

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “I thought this was our year.”

MARK SCHEIFELE: “Every game was tight. Every game was a matter of inches, almost. They capitalized when they needed the chance and it just sucks.”

The Jets have their exit meetings with coaches and management and speak with the media for a final time. It’s clear this memorable season has raised the bar for the future.

KEVIN CHEVELDAYOFF: “You know, there’s a genuine hurt. It’s going to take a few days, probably more, to really come to grips with just the emotion that goes into what we’ve just gone through. And that’s good. I think that’s really good. My message to a lot of the guys was take a couple days off, or a couple weeks off, enjoy your families and then let’s get ready.”

BLAKE WHEELER: “As hard as maybe it is to admit, maybe trial by fire is how this works.”

BRYAN LITTLE: “It was a great experience. We all had a lot of fun going through it together. But at the same time, it makes you want it a lot more. It makes you want to get to that Stanley Cup final and play for the Cup. Once you get a taste for it, you want to be right back there. You want to hit fast forward to next year already.”

CONNOR HELLEBUYCK: “We learned a tremendous amount about this. Yes, we’re going through hardship right now. But we’re going to be so much better from it. We’re talking about being a dynasty and really making pushes every single year.”

Read more by Mike McIntyre.