Young Jets take big winning step in search for identity

REGINA — Paul Maurice figured it had a little bit of everything, a magical night capped off with a memorable comeback win by his club.

“The fireworks are going on, the (military) jets come over, O Canada is on, it’s snowing out. You just needed Santa and the reindeer blasting over and it would have been the perfect scene,” the Winnipeg Jets bench boss cracked following the Heritage Classic at a sold-out Mosaic Stadium in Regina.

Now the trick for Maurice’s troops is to find a way to wrap up Saturday night’s 2-1 overtime victory over Calgary and make it the gift that keeps on giving.

Easier said than done for a team that has struggled early in the season and sports a mediocre 6-6-0 overall record that fairly reflects what we’ve seen so far. But there’s just something about the way the Jets were able to overcome adversity against a quality opponent in this one — on a major stage, to boot — which leaves you wondering…

Can this win become more than just a one-night stand and two points in the bank?

“We’re going to try to leverage it in that way, right?” Maurice told me in response to that question.

In the dressing room following the game, it was clear this was no ordinary night at the office. Of course, the office was anything but ordinary, with more than 33,000 fans and a national television audience watching the snow-swept spectacle. It was a chilly minus-3 C at puck drop, with a north wind gusting to 43 km/h that had it feeling more like minus-10 C. There was a bit of a snow-globe effect as flurries picked up shortly after action got underway.

“It’s a lot more fun to win, and looking back on it, we’ll have those memories of coming back, fighting back and forcing that overtime and scoring,” said centre Bryan Little, who netted the game-winner.

Perhaps a young team that has been searching for an identity just took a big step towards finding one?

“The bench was great. It gets to keep the idea that it can come back,” Maurice said. “The style of offence changed a little bit. We got a little harder to the net. We’ve been preaching that pretty hard for a while, so there are some really good things from a coach’s point of view.”

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler has struggled, but he's convinced that if he keeps working hard, the bounces will start to go his way. (Liam Richards / The Canadian Press)

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler has struggled, but he’s convinced that if he keeps working hard, the bounces will start to go his way. (Liam Richards / The Canadian Press)

“We’ve got enough guys in this room, a locker room full of guys that just stay with it and keep grinding and show up every day with that mentality. I guess when you do that, the tide turns at some point.” – Jets captain Blake Wheeler

Captain Blake Wheeler said it was important for the Jets to get a payoff Saturday night, especially when so little had gone right lately with just one win in five games heading into Regina.

“It was one of those things where you’re going through a rut and it seems like everything goes against you.

We’ve got enough guys in this room, a locker room full of guys that just stay with it and keep grinding and show up every day with that mentality. I guess when you do that, the tide turns at some point. Luckily, we didn’t run out of time,” he said.

All of the ups and downs have taken a toll on Wheeler, who is stuck in one of the longest offensive droughts of his career with no points over the last six contests. There he was last Thursday morning, on what was a full day off for his team before they headed west to Saskatchewan, skating alone at the Bell MTS Iceplex, apparently trying to find his game. He rang a shot off the crossbar Saturday, a sign of how things have been going for him personally.

“It’s been real tough, certainly over the last handful of games. You just can’t let that get to you. You’ve got to be happy with who you are as a player and who we are as a team. You just keep throwing it at them every shift and if you do it that way, you’re at least going to give yourself an opportunity,” said Wheeler.

And the Jets certainly took advantage of the one Calgary gave them, with a late, third-period penalty that led to a game-tying power play goal, followed by the overtime winner

“We have a great room and we have a lot of guys that maybe in those situations aren’t as involved in the game. But when you come back to the bench and you have guys telling you ‘great shift or great shot or great try or it’s coming, it’s right there’ those things add up. When you come back and we’ve been out there for a power play and we have 10 guys fired up for us to go and get a tying goal, it makes you want to do it a little more for the guys,” said Wheeler.

“I really like our bench, I really like our room. You like when you go out there and there is enthusiasm behind you to get the job done. It gives you an extra step.”

If there’s reason to be skeptical, it’s this: By my count, the Calgary triumph is the fourth potential “statement” win by the Jets this season, and they haven’t exactly made the most of the first three. Why should this one be any different, some may ask.

Winnipeg erased a 4-0 deficit against New Jersey in the second game of the year, winning 5-4, only to drop a lacklustre 4-1 decision to the New York Islanders two nights later.

The Jets then went into their personal house of horrors, PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, and snapped an 18-game losing streak that spanned 13 years by downing Sidney Crosby and the Penguins with a massively undermined squad that was without a number of key pieces including Josh Morrissey.

Sure, they reeled off two more wins that week for what has been their longest positive streak to date, but then took a big step back by getting thumped days later by the same Penguins team, on home ice no less, 7-2. That was followed by two more defeats at Bell MTS Place, and it seemed like any progress had quickly been undone.

Then came a tremendous defensive effort against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers and a 1-0 shootout win. Followed, naturally, by one of their worst games if the year last Tuesday, a 3-2 loss to Los Angeles.

All of this may explain why there seems to be an awareness from the Jets that while the Heritage Classic could become a turning point, nothing is going to be given to them. Or, likely, come easy.

Adam Lowry told me as much, suggesting this can be as big, or as small, as the team ultimately makes it.

“It’s a lot of fun to play on the big stage and you get to enjoy it a little more because you have the victory, it’s more of a positive experience. At the end of the day, one win is not the difference. Maybe if it was kind of to get us on a roll. It has us feeling good going into a big road trip.”

And that’s why this coming week is such a big one.

Winnipeg will face three tough Western Conference teams in enemy territory, beginning Tuesday night in Anaheim. Dates with the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights follow.

“This was business and we’ve got to continue playing. That’s my focus. We can enjoy it for a little bit but that’s my focus,” said goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

Can the Jets can take advantage of the obvious good vibes from Regina, or will this become just the latest example of false hope?

We’re about to find out.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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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