WINNIPEG — “’Fun’ is a strong word.”
The eternally focused Blake Wheeler was trying to answer a question that could have come from the lips of any fan across Canada lucky enough to have checked into Winnipeg-Nashville early enough, from the array of sporting spectacles on display Tuesday evening.
“Isn’t this more fun, 5-4 or 7-4 hockey, compared to traditional 2-1 playoff hockey?” Wheeler was asked.
But “fun” and being the captain of the hockey team that has captivated this Manitoba capital — and soon, if not already, an entire hockey country — might be mutually exclusive. The pressure here, it’s got to be immense.
Winnipeg is a one-horse town, and Wheeler is the sheriff. He’s just happy to win here, regardless of the score.
“It’s better hockey,” he finally allowed. “As great as a 2-1 or 3-2 win feels … people want to see scoring chances. People want to see goals. Obviously coaches want to see less goals against, but what’s the entertainment value in that?”
No matter how this Round 2 series turns out, this was a night they’ll never forget here in Winnipeg. It is the first second-round NHL playoff game this city has ever seen where the opponents didn’t include Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in their primes.
It’s a Jets team you can believe in now, but one that came out nervous in the first period, with shaky goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck that we’d not seen this spring. The score was 3-0. The Nashville Predators were cool, solid.
“Paul (head coach Maurice) just came in here and told us, ‘Go play hockey,’” said defenceman Jacob Trouba of the first intermission. “’Don’t worry about everything around (town) with what’s going on with the playoffs, and coming home. Play loose, have fun.’ That’s what we did.”
This was a Super Tuesday that snuck up on a Canadian couch dweller. The Jays were playing on Sportsnet, the Penguins and Capitals were going at it on another channel, and the Raptors opened against Cleveland.
As the evening wore on, Caps-Pens ramped up to an Ovechkin winner, the Raps went to overtime, and as folks wore out the buttons on the remote, the Jets came out in the second period to became the main event on a fulsome Tuesday night menu.
This is a building that I will one day bill for my hearing aids; a room full of hockey-loving Canadians who watched that show they put on down at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, then said to Preds fans, “Hold our beer.”
“I don’t think you can say they have no impact on the game, that’s for sure,” said Trouba.
The Jets exploded for four second-period goals — three in 2:51 — and found the perfect way to protect a shaky Hellebuyck, not allowing a Nashville shot for 11:11 in the second period. By the time this game was over the Predators were unravelling with three minors in the final 8:06, including a Billy Smith-like slash by their leader, Pekka Rinne, who went way out of character after the game when his interview with the Finnish scribes was peppered with English swear words.
Rinne was rattled. The Jets bent. The Preds broke.
And the town blew up.
“I think you drink it in,” said Trouba, asked if the Jets players should be enjoying the atmosphere in and outside the rink here. “It’s impossible to go around here (and block it out). You drive home, every business has some sign on it about the team.”
This is a guy who wanted out of town not too long ago, an American kid who wanted to go home.
Now? Listen to this:
“It’s not like you get this everywhere,” Trouba marvelled. “You’re going to look back on this when you’re old and it’s going to be a pretty good memory. I think you should enjoy it.”
We all watched those awful New Jersey teams in the ‘90s that won their Cups by trapping the game to within an inch of its life, and I covered the Los Angeles Kings of 2012. There, you’d suit up at the hotel, hop in your rental and drive to the rink, all the while absolutely sure you would be treated to a 2-1 game.
On a good night, the Kings gave you an empty-netter for 3-1.
These Jets? They’ll beat you from in front, they’ll beat you from behind, they’ll beat you 2-1 and, or they’ll smoke you 7-4.
And they’re doing it all in a Canadian town that never got anything but a kick in the teeth from the hockey gods, outside a couple of Avco Cups back in their World Hockey Association days.
There is something here this spring, both on the ice and in the streets of a town that loves its club no less than anyone Montrealer, Canucks fan, or long suffering Leafs fan. This could be one wild ride, one that Wheeler isn’t ready to celebrate quite yet.
“It’s not our place to celebrate right now. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Wheeler said of the Jets players. “What we’re trying to do is reward our fan base who have stuck with us for seven years. I mean, this is our second playoff appearance in seven years, and I haven’t seen an empty seat in the house in seven years.
“So, it’s for them to celebrate. Not for us. We’ll just feed off of the energy they give us. You know, shoot … if we can get 50,000 people in the streets? How special is that?”
It’s special. Maybe even more special than we thought it could be.