The Winnipeg Jets Have Seen This Movie Before
The Winnipeg Jets, thankfully, aren’t waking up again and again to Sonny and Cher’s classic (?) I Got You Babe but for the players who’ve been in the Peg since year one and the team’s passionate fan base, this is beginning to feel a lot like Groundhog Day.
Phil Connors (Bill Murray) of course got many, many chances to make that day work out exactly right, whereas for the Winnipeg Jets this is their third chance to wake up and find a way into the National Hockey League playoffs. And who knows, it might be the same situation again next season. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you but this is pretty much exactly where the Jets have been before at this point in the season – albeit this time around thanks to some much-needed Paul Maurice magic. In 2011 after 58 games, they were seven points out of a playoff spot but went on a 4-0-2 run to move into a tie for the final playoff spot in the East. Last season after their 34th game (same percentage point of the lockout-shortened campaign), they actually held down the 6th playoff seed in the East. Now this season after their 58th game, they find themselves two points out of the playoff race.
This team has teased and tantalized Winnipeg Jets fans since coming to town amidst so much hoopla. They have enjoyed some tremendous highs (like their current franchise-best 9-2 run) and they have endured some disappointing lows. Unfortunately, a number of those lows have started to come at this same point of the last two seasons.
In season one, the Winnipeg Jets had actually crawled their way back up into a playoff spot with only 15 games left to play. But while playoff bound teams switched into another gear, the Jets faded badly going 5-8-2 and missing the post-season by nine points. Last season was an absolute disastrous finish. With 18 games remaining, the Jets were leading the lowly Southeast Division and were a whopping 11 points up on the Washington Capitals.
Winnipeg had just gone 4-1 in their previous five before hosting a pair of back-to-back games against the Caps that turned out to be the turning point in both teams’ seasons. Then disaster struck. Washington stole both games by a combined score of 10-1 eventually shooting past the Jets and into the playoffs. Including those two games, the Jets only won two of their next nine games. They teased their fans with a late 6-0-1 stretch but the Caps debacle had really taken the wind out of the team’s sails.
Now, we’re back again on the playoff fringes in another season where the Jets were picked by most experts to finish as one of the bottom three teams in the Western Conference. Will this finally be the season that Bill Murray, er, Paul Maurice gets it right? Is the third time the charm for this team? Can Maurice find a way to break free from the .500 magnet that the Jets keep bouncing around but getting pulled back to?
Make no mistake, the Winnipeg Jets still have an uphill climb ahead of them. In the last two seasons, this collection of players has seemed unable to consistently find that extra gear that teams need in the final stretch. Games get tighter, grittier and meaner and they will after the Olympic break. In the previous two seasons, the Jets have been unable to match that increased intensity. And, that was in the admittedly weaker and less gritty East. How will this team manage the grind they’ll see against Western Conference teams?
No one can know for sure. The pessimists around this team (and watching Twitter will tell you they are Legion) will tell you they have no chance. Some of my favourite Twitter “experts” were saying weeks and weeks ago that the Jets had no chance. They’ll tell you the fourth line sucks, Ondrej Pavelec is a sieve and that any team with Mark Stuart as a top-four defenceman is doomed to fail. However, the optimists will say that Paul Maurice’s hockey player-whisperer ways will continue. The Jets have two capable goalies which should help prevent fatigue being an issue and the Winnipeg Jets have a more balanced scoring attack than any team in the NHL. There seems to be a growing hope and expectation that Maurice may be able to find a way to push this team to a new level come crunch time.
Meanwhile for us fans, it looks like the ecstasy and the angst is highly probable to continue. At times, this team will look playoff-bound and at other times some might wonder how they could even tie their own skates. We’ll have to watch with bated breath as the team plays out the final 30% of the season. Is there a team in the league where the Olympic break is coming at a worse time than for the red-hot Jets?
As much as fans and players have gone through the angst of Winnipeg’s late-season struggles, it has likely been just as troubling for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. This is looking like the third straight season Winnipeg’s situation at the trade deadline could be quite ambiguous leaving Chevy between a rock and a hard place.
Does he make a deal to try to bolster the lineup with the like of a Matt Moulson or Steve Ott and push the club into a playoff spot that River City’s fans are desperately craving? Or, does he unload one or two of the team’s veteran Unrestricted Free Agents in exchange for building blocks that could potentially be key pieces in future, longer playoff runs meanwhile decimating the current lineup which would limp its way to season’s end?
After flirting with success over and over, Phil Connors finally learned the key lessons he needed to and got the beautiful Rita (Andie MacDowell). Have the Winnipeg Jets spent enough time flirting with success and finally learned the key lessons they need to get that beautiful playoff spot? Maybe this is the season this team overcomes years of past failures and finds its way into the post-season for only the second time in franchise history.
by Darryl Mills