WINNIPEG – Blake Wheeler stands in front of his stall mere minutes after playing the longest hockey game of his NHL career.
Loud and angry and punctuated with more mood swings than a toddler skipping naptime, Game 2 of Jets-Predators in Nashville was a humdinger of a hockey game, a nine-goal, 60-chance, five-period epic with heroes and goats and enough sideshows and gif-wrapped capsules to turn casual fans formal and provide talk-radio with more than enough fodder till they do it all over again Tuesday.
Still the club Wheeler captains, with an iron will and sardonic wit, just lost a coin-flip thriller and he’s doing his best to bottle frustration.
"Are you able to appreciate the entertainment value in a game like this?" a brave reporter ventures.
Wheeler takes a deep breath as he contemplates an appropriate response and, quite possibly, putting his questioner in a headlock.
"I don’t think so," the hockey player says, summoning politeness.
Scrum over. Series on, and poppin’. Best of five.
The Predators and Jets finished the regular season one-two in points and (we see you, Vegas!) are likely worthy of the same power-ranking in terms of Awesome Places to Go See a Playoff Game.
Hockey fans deserve this.
Each club dresses up a Vezina Trophy finalist in the nets, but both Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck have already been pulled at points in this young post-season, and we prefer our hockey with a side of mistakes.
The sides are at essentially at full health (we see you, Joel Armia!) and both top lines are at the top of their game.
Wheeler’s centreman, Mark Scheifele, has more goals (eight) than anyone in the playoffs, and nearly each one has been pretty in an ugly area. Nashville’s best trio — Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson — only combined for eight points in Sunday’s 5-4 OT gem when they could’ve had more, making good on Johansen’s early "must win" declaration.
"There’s a lot more offence to be had. If this thing ended up 11-10, it might have been fair with some of the chances at both ends," Maurice said. "I don’t think anybody is playing casual or loose. Both teams have finishers and they get to the net."
Picture, in your mind, the ideal playoff roster: handsy forwards who can turnstyle a good D-man, snipers who can go bar-down with the best of ’em, speedy defenders confident enough to create their own offence, a goalie solid enough to steal you a game or two per series. Fast and tough, but not sloppily so. Resilient. Accustomed to quick starts and early leads but doesn’t panic when playing catch-up.
Now double that roster, paint one yellow, one blue, and stuff all 40 men, and all their beliefs and talents and flaws, into arenas so deafening and victory-hungry that the ice surface starts to shrink and feel more like a boxing ring.
A mutual respect lives here among the hate. For now, at least, players and coaches keep complementing the other side. P.K. Subban said he was comfortable being a minus-three and losing Game 1. Maurice said he was "more comfortable" with the way his Jets played, and lost, Game 2 than how they won Game 1.
"Very fast, lots of transition, lots of excitement at both ends of the ice, great chances, some missed opportunities," Maurice says. "This game [Sunday] looked the way we thought the series would look."
We deserve Johansen, too hurt to play for his city in the 2017 Cup final, scoring 27 seconds into the game’s first shift.
We need Subban blasting a twine-seeking missile from the point and reminding a conservative sport how trades can be won.
We can’t wait to retweet Dustin Byfuglien rag-dolling Austin Watson and Roman Josi — that’s 405 pounds of combined Predator — all at once. Or punching his own teammates in the face after Scheifele’s clutch goal.
Viktor Arvidsson’s throwback slapper off the rush, Josh Morrissey sacrificing his body to block a shot as time expires, Ryan Ellis taking a skate blade to the face and returning as soon as the doc can weave 14 stitches into his cheek and thank God for mandatory visors… this is reality TV made healthy.
"There’s times when I was a kid where I was told to go to sleep and I’d turn my TV on mute just to watch the end of the hockey game that’s in triple overtime," says Jacob Trouba. "So those are the games you want to play in."
The spectacle of this searing series soars over the glass and beyond the boards.
Nashville pulled out all the stops Sunday. Carrie Underwood — listed in the game-night program as fourth-line centre Mike Fisher’s "favorite musician" — sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" something lovely.
James Shaw Jr., the actual hero who saved lives at the Tennessee Waffle House shooting and continues to raise money for the victims, was invited and honoured mid-game.
Chris Isaac played live during intermission, and the Tennessee Titans offensive line did something with a catfish and beer and no shirts that we’re not sure would’ve been legal in another state:
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) April 29, 2018
Fans waved free, flashing golden lightsabers and chanted relentlessly, with bite. "Nashville Is Always Loud" read the t-shirt of one young woman walking toward Music City’s outdoor watch party, which diverted traffic and swallowed a couple blocks of Broadway’s honky-tonk strip adjacent to Bridgestone Arena.
The wisdom of the downtown rink is shared, as 20,000 or so Winnipeggers put away their inhibitions and lay out their costumes for Game 3.
"The atmosphere [in Nashville] is awesome, a little bit crazy. But I like ours a lot more. I think ours is way more hockey-related and a lot more stinging than theirs was," Hellebuyck says.
"We’re going to be calling out to our fans to really put the pressure on, because we have that ability here."
The East side of the Stanley Cup bracket features four familiar powers who’ve all either won Cups or been here before.
The West is a wild frontier. San Jose, Vegas, Nashville and Winnipeg have combined for zero championships. This loads the next few weeks with freedom to dream but also the heft of legitimate belief that the Winnipeg-Nashville winner could go all the way.
Maurice describes his playoff viewing habits this way: "The Eastern Conference is like candy, And the Western Conference would be like meat and potatoes. Gotta get the main meal in."
So, what if it’s only Round 2? This aggressive, breakneck, full-contact track meet of a series looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet (Buff, eh?!).
Blake Wheeler is, understandably, too entrenched to be entertained. But us, outside the ring? We’re just happy to tuck in the napkin and sport-eat ’till it hurts.
"Right now, we’ve just got to get some rest, get some good food, some good eats," Subban says, "and get ready for the toughest road trip of the year."