WINNIPEG — Belief is the oxygen of the National Hockey League playoffs. If you have it, you run. If you don’t, you‘ll choke out eventually.
So, how is the St. Louis Blues’ belief meter these days?
“Personally, I think this is the best team I’ve ever played on,” 10-year centreman Ryan O’Reilly was saying on the off-day between Games 1 and 2. “I’m confident. I’m confident we can beat anyone.”
And the Winnipeg Jets?
Well, a 2-1 loss in Game 1 marked the 10th time in 83 games this season that the Jets have blown a lead after 40 minutes, compared to twice last season. They believe they can be last year’s team again, but as head coach Paul Maurice admits, “you’ve got to get it done, right?”
Here is where we are after one game of Winnipeg and St. Louis: You have one team that hit rock bottom back in December, picked itself up and became the best team in the Western Conference since Jan. 1.
Then you have the Jets, who reached out to the Hoosli Ukrainian Men’s Choir to sing the national anthems for Game 2. The Hoosli’s have a record of 5-0 this season, you see, and the Jets are hoping their presence might help them to get on a roll. A cabbage roll, we’ll call it for now.
“Confidence in the playoffs is all brand new, right?” Maurice said. “Tampa Bay hasn’t given up a three-goal lead all year long — and boom, it happens to you. So everything starts brand new in the playoffs, until you close one out and you feel a little better about (yourselves). And if you don’t, then you’re not going to have a string of many games left to worry about it.”
Think back to nearly every Stanley Cup participant we’ve ever watched. The Vegas Golden Knights last season — they had this magical belief, until they ran into Washington, a bigger, better team whose belief system had been tested far more than their own.
The demands of a two-month long playoff run tests your will and your belief in ways no other sport does. You won’t win every night, but you can believe every night.
Those that do don’t always win. But those who don’t?
They never win.
In St. Louis, you’ve got a team that was supposed to be a contender but had such a bad start that head coach Mike Yeo was fired, and management was so confident in Craig Berube that they made him an interim, leaving plenty of room to be replaced at year’s end. Meanwhile, GM Doug Armstrong began shopping nearly every player on his roster.
“We looked hard in the mirror there, especially after the coaching change, knowing that the only place to go was up from where we were,” said defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who almost became a Toronto Maple Leaf in the purge that never quite happened. “We stayed level-headed the best we could, and Chief (Berube) came in and kind of helped us turn things around. This group never gave up.”
It’s the oldest of clichés: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“We battled adversity right from the get-go,” O’Reilly said. “There were high expectations for us right away, and were disappointed with our start. But we kept working, and eventually we found some chemistry. It’s something we can definitely lean on: We’ve seen ourselves at our worst, and know how to get out of those situations.”
On Friday, with the strains of the mighty Hoosli choir still reverberating through the rink, the Jets will line up for a Game 2 puck drop, not lacking in confidence. Just lacking in tangible evidence to be confident about.
They know all the good things this meticulously built roster is capable of, but a lot of those qualities are ghosts — images that haven’t been seen for a while. Not like St. Louis.
So they speak with confidence, do the Winnipeggers, referencing points in history that buttress their position. And most of all, they don’t read columns like this one, that could raise their anxiety levels for no good reason.
“The playoffs are so much about how you control your emotions,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “You win a game and all of a sudden you feel like you’re going to win the Stanley Cup. You lose a game and you feel you’ve got no chance.
“The team that won it all last year was a crossbar away from going (down) 3-0 in the first round. Tampa tied the NHL record for wins this year and they’re down 0-1. If you’re going to be devastated by a loss or two losses, you have no business expecting to win the Stanley Cup.”
You could say it’s getting late early this spring in Winnipeg, with the Jets at risk of trailing 2-0 when the series heads south to Missouri. But to do that, you’d have to be looking past the first period of Game 2, and for a team in search of reasons to believe, that would be heresy.
“Clearly, we’d like to leave tomorrow night 1-1 going into their building,” Wheeler said. “There (are only) so many things you can control, and we’re going to control all those things. Come with the right attitude tomorrow night and just work our tails off.
“We think that’s going to be enough.”
The Jets believe it will be good enough.
At this time of year, you’ve got to believe in something.