WINNIPEG — As he handed Joe Morrow a Top Gun–style grey fighter-jet pilot’s helmet behind the thick closed doors of the Winnipeg Jets dressing room in celebration of Game 1, captain Blake Wheeler delivered a short speech, a blend of recognition and sarcasm.
“We brought you in here to score big goals in games like this,” announced Wheeler, before passing the bucket to the stay-at-home depth defenceman.
The “big goal” Wheeler acknowledged was only the first playoff game-winner in franchise history, good enough to earn a bounce-around guy like Morrow his first player-of-the-game honour with his sixth pro team in five years. But that’s not the important portion of Wheeler’s statement. “We brought you in”—that’s the key for a trade-deadline pickup needing a fit.
“It’s such a close-knit team here. I think some of the guys were more excited for me than I was for myself. That’s what you want in a team. That’s what you grow up needing in a team, especially in a locker room where people are selfless and happy for you when you’re successful, it’s going to make this team go a long way,” Morrow explains. He’s in a thoughtful place.
“It’s the camaraderie. Everybody picks each other up regardless. Even if you’re having a bad game, I’ve never heard anyone on this team negatively speak towards someone, which is huge. In the past, I have heard that and it does bring the momentum and the mood of the team down. This one is so positive.”
Those outside the walls would be foolish to pretend to know the difference between a strong group and a fragile one, but spend a week around the Jets—Canada’s best hope to win a Stanley Cup—and you start to sense the unity that has touched guys like Morrow.
Winning solves everything is a cliché because it packs so much truth, but there’s more to it than that.
Tightness is borne of time and hardship: in-season hiccups like 22 games sans Mark Scheifele, 11 without Dustin Byfuglien, or 37 down Adam Lowry; and big-picture frustrations like no playoff appearances since Teemu Selanne or getting dusted off like shoulder lint by the Ducks when you finally do make the cut.
“I was so still young in the game, but I learned a lot from those four games and leading up to that and seeing what it takes to play against,” Scheifele says. “You gain that experience, you gain experience over the last three years going through different adversities just through the season.”
The indicators of a resilient group were there. When the Jets slid out of the race in ’16 and ’17, they embraced the role of spoiler, winning down the stretch where others have tanked or checked out.
That starts and ends with a leadership core as good and diverse as any. Wheeler. Byfuglien. Scheifele.
Young goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a year before he actually turned himself into a Vezina finalist, made some bold proclamations about trophies that got a lot of eye-rolling in the local papers.
Wheeler, a legitimate ‘C,’ pulled his goalie aside and gently nudged him in line.
“Not that I didn’t like what he said. I love the confidence,” Wheeler says. “But let’s temper the expectations a little bit.”
What you don’t know about Byfuglien, Maurice says, is his intensity.
“The camera will be on him and he’ll have a great, big missing-tooth grin, and then you think he’s casual, and he’s the exact opposite. He’s barking up and down the ice making fun of people but intense with his work. But you need a guy in there that when it is a little bit tight, can say enough things that are funny to loosen the group up, and he does a pretty good job of that.”
A singular focus dictates the Jets remain on course.
“There’s so much ups and downs in every game, turnovers, you get a chance, they get a chance, whatever it is,” Scheifele says. “You have to keep that even keel, know what your line does best, know what you do best especially, and go from there. We know we had a good season. Now it’s a new one and we have to make some more waves.
“You want to win the Stanley Cup, that’s what you want to do. You’re not focused on anything else.”
The Jets have a new playoff motto—“Drivers Wanted… Death from Above”—and decals depicting the slogan with a fighter pilot’s skull and a blue bomber are plastered around the room. Someone pressed up t-shirts.
The idea came from extra forward Matt Hendricks, as joyous a lineup scratch as you’ll meet. Even he’s no passenger on this ride. Coach Maurice made his extra skaters study film of the Minnesota Wild’s forecheck and PK so they could mimic that during practice and provide a realistic dress rehearsal for the starters.
There are no bit parts in The Peg.
Outside those walls, do we fall into the romantic narrative that teamwork and selflessness can conquer all in hockey?
“It’s the critical piece—by far,” says Maurice, who recently had a long conversation about that very topic with Jon Rempel, coach of the Canadian champion women’s team at the University of Manitoba. “The coach’s intensity, whether you have that ability to wind a team up, is so secondary to how the players feel about themselves.
“They care about each other, they talk to each other, they create bonds that eventually mean they don’t want to let each other down. It would be true of any relationship you have with somebody you’re close to. The closer you are, the more you’re willing to sacrifice for that person. That’s true in a locker room, too.”
The signs extend beyond stickers and t-shirts. Every major event in this opening series has been met with one voice, spoken by everyone. The message is as consistent as the execution.
On wasting a day before Game 3’s loss because they were flying around in a snowstorm: Not a big deal at all. (In truth, sources say this peeved the players off, and understandably so.)
“Anything can happen,” Scheifele says. “You can’t ride that roller coaster. You gotta enjoy it. We play a game we love each and every day.”
So when the Jets lost the lead in Game 1, there was no alarm. They rallied seconds later and got it back for keeps. When Mathieu Perreault went down, rookie Jack Roslovic stepped up and they won the next one. When Myers went out, rookie Tucker Poolman came in and they won. Should Morrissey be suspended, the expectation will be the same.
They didn’t expect to go 16-0, but they expect they can go 16.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 1-0 or 20-0. It’s just one loss,” Patrik Laine shrugs.
“We didn’t have that confidence we do now. No game is out of reach for us, even if we’re down a couple goals,” says Bryan Little, drafted a Thrasher.
“We can roll four lines now easily, so we don’t have to worry about matchups. If one line or two lines aren’t scoring, we have enough depth and enough weapons out there that we’re confident we can score big goals from anyone.”
Even Jacob Trouba, whose 2016 trade demand feels like a lifetime ago, is all in.
“When you try it your way enough times and it doesn’t work, you might want to try something different,” says the defenceman. “We found that out. You can call it being young or inexperienced or whatever you want, but it’s an important lesson to learn.”
So, Coach, is this the tightest group you’ve worked with?
“The easy answer is, ‘Yeah, this is the closest group I’ve ever had.’ But I don’t know that the coach truly knows all the good stuff,” Maurice says.
“With our group, I like the way they move around. I’ve watched them allow the young kids to come in and fit into it. But we’re not in that room. Most of the really good stories, we never hear. We can hear the laughter on the other side of the door, but you never really get the good stuff.”
A good indicator of a fractured team, Maurice says, is when the players don’t throw a Super Bowl party for themselves.
“We had one this year, so we’re good,” Maurice says. “We don’t fall into somebody’s arms and not let them drop so they trust you. We don’t do any of that stuff.
“Fun has been the biggest part of it.”
You’ll like your locker mate much more if he’s winning, so the most effective way Maurice can keep the group close is to devise a smart game plan, and the best way to win is to follow it.
“We just trust in our system, trust in each other. We never stride away from our game. We like it; we’ve seen it succeed enough,” Hellebuyck says.
“That’s what continues to grind the team.”