WINNIPEG — That distinct sound you heard was the collective sigh of relief emanating from the Winnipeg Jets dressing room.
The toll of a seven-game losing skid had been on display for all to see and the full range of emotions -- frustration, anger and disbelief -- had finally given away to sheer joy by the time the final buzzer had sounded and the Jets had secured a tidy 4-0 victory over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.
With four games left in the regular season, the Jets took an important step in the process of putting this turbulent stretch behind them -- and punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“All you’re looking for when you start the season is an opportunity,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who scored twice and collected his 800th NHL point. “Anything can happen now. It was nice for everyone to get a result. I think our game has been way better the last few games and it was really important for our team to get rewarded.”
Qualifying for the post-season in the North Division is an accomplishment, but this edition of the Jets is going to be judged on what they do once they get there. Although this group was considered by most observers as a bubble team going into the campaign, this is merely the first step toward the Jets' ultimate goal.
“The goal at the start of the year is playoffs. It's nice to have that behind us,” said centre Adam Lowry, who scored twice and became the seventh forward on the roster to hit double digits in goals. “It was a long couple of weeks. There were some frustrating moments. But the last couple of games we've played a lot better and we're looking to build off that.”
A single victory against a non-playoff team -- as impressive as it was -- is not a magic elixir. It doesn’t erase the entirety of this taxing losing streak.
But it was a necessary first step.
Think of it as a building block for a team that’s suddenly taken a two-point lead over the Montreal Canadiens in the chase for third place.
“You get wrapped up in the moment sometimes, and when you have the stretch that we've just had, you lose sight of your starting point,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, who collected his 300th win with the Jets in his 568th game. “We had a lot of things that we had to get right to get into the playoffs. We got off to a real good start and maintained that, and of course it's well-documented what we just went through.
“But now you can take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the start to where we are now, and get to make the playoffs in a really difficult season for all teams. So we'll get to enjoy that for a day.”
The grand prize at the end of that competition is a date with either the Edmonton Oilers or Toronto Maple Leafs.
It’s a pick-your-poison type of scenario, but it beats the alternative.
“Well, it's huge. And I think if you draw up a perfect game, this is pretty dang close to it. Every single guy chipped in in that room,” said Connor Hellebuyck, who made 32 saves as he recorded his third shutout of the season. “And we knew it was going to happen, but to come out and play like this, it was just another notch -- another level that we have. It's really exciting and I'm really looking forward to seeing where we go from here.
“You know, it's weird because I'm not over here thinking, ‘Oh, we just broke our streak.’ I'm over here thinking, ‘We played a heck of a game’ and I'm looking forward here. I have no weight at all about what had just happened. It's almost like I cut the cord and it's a whole new season now."
While the four goals scored by the Jets were a welcome development for a team that was limited to 10 goals in the previous seven games, the rock-solid work of Hellebuyck was a critical piece.
Hellebuyck wasn’t overworked, but he was dialled in -- looking exactly like the difference-maker he’ll need to be when that whole new season begins later this month.
The recent run of improved play at five-on-five was bolstered by improved special teams, as the Jets snapped a 0-for-20 drought on the power play and added a short-handed goal for good measure to win the special-teams battle 2-0.
Another important development in Wednesday's game was the unassuming and effective play of Jets defenceman Ville Heinola.
Playing his third NHL game of the season, Heinola showcased the things he needs to do to remain in consideration in this open competition for the sixth defenceman job he finds himself in with fellow rookie Logan Stanley and the more experienced Jordie Benn.
Heinola finished with just under 14 minutes of ice time, skating mostly alongside Dylan DeMelo.
His zone exits were crisp and clean, which is an obvious area where he can make an impact.
Heinola did a good job creating leverage while defending and was aggressive in his reads, though he was not careless or reckless.
It might be too early to suggest Heinola did enough to get a leg up in the chase for a spot in the Game 1 lineup, but he’s back in consideration at a time when many folks thought he’d already slipped to afterthought -- or use only in case of emergency status.
“A puck-moving defenceman doesn’t need to move it 50 times a game to be a puck-moving defenceman. It’s about one a period that will take you from being a bottom third team to a top third team in terms of your exits and your breakouts. He did that. I liked that an awful lot,” said Maurice. “What was really good about Ville’s game was his gap in the offensive zone. The confidence and picking the right time to gap hard. What that tells you is he’s a player that understands his own size, what he has to do to play against bigger men -- pre-gap -- get in there early, pick the right time to do it. There were a lot of really small things about Ville’s game that were nice.
“He’s certainly earned another look. He played well enough to get back in for sure.”
Morrissey’s had a revolving door of defence partners this season and the comfort level with Pionk is immediately evident.
Does that combination leave the Jets a bit top heavy?
No doubt, but it’s the best option Maurice has at his disposal right now.
“There was never really a concern we wouldn’t like that and we do like it an awful lot and why wouldn’t you?” said Maurice. “The question is what does it leave?”
If they can find a way to be effective, the experiment with Morrissey and Pionk figures to continue.
The Jets are back in action on Saturday in the 10th and final meeting against the surging Ottawa Senators.
It also represents the next opportunity for the Jets to take another step toward trying to find the level that the Oilers and Maple Leafs are already playing at.
“We’ve only given up (three) even-strength goals the last four games now, so defensively we’re playing right and sometimes it’s hard to keep preaching that to a team that likes to score goals,” said Wheeler. “Those defensive efforts turned into some offensive chances. It’s just hard to keep preaching the same things, to be responsible defensively and be patient with your game… when you’re not getting rewarded on the other end. What made our team so good in 2018-19 was we were the best at that. Obviously, we had a ton of firepower and we’d get out to leads and then we were able to sit back and force teams to make mistakes and we were just so good defensively that then we would convert that into offensive chances and score goals.
“It reminded me a lot of my days in Boston early on. That’s playoff hockey. What it comes down to is the team that’s more patient in their structure and more set on that, ultimately the other team’s going to break and open up and make some mistakes and that’s where you take advantage.”