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Jets reflect on memorable season, but are motivated for more

Wheeler, Maurice know the work for next season begins in the summer

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton /

WINNIPEG - It's still hard for the Winnipeg Jets to believe that their run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs is over.

The team experienced its first postseason win, as well as their first and second series wins, before being eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final.

"I think you still wake up today, you were prepared to still be playing," said captain Blake Wheeler. "That's the hard part. In the span of seven days, you go from having everything right in front of you - a lot of hope and expectation - and it all changes in a week."

While many Jets were complimentary of Vegas' performance throughout the series, it's still a tough pill to swallow - especially after the high the team experienced following the Game 7 win over Nashville, just two days before the start of the series against the Golden Knights.

"You come out of a Nashville series against the Presidents' Trophy winners, go to seven games, and you feel really good about yourself. You win Game 1 here, and you feel like you're right there on top of the world," said Andrew Copp. "We just learned how small that margin of error is. It's crazy. One minute you're up 1-0, and a few days later our season is done. Still trying to process a little bit. We just learned what it takes to get here - first of all we learned how to get here - but it's that much harder to finish the job."

Video: YEAR END | Scheifele, Wheeler and Stastny

Finishing the job, of course, would mean moving on to the Stanley Cup Final and taking home the Stanley Cup. The Jets couldn't do that in 2017-18, but the importance of this playoff experience can't be measured.

For many on the roster, it was their first taste of NHL postseason action. Copp was one of those players, along with goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, defenceman Josh Morrissey, and forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic, Kyle Connor, Brandon Tanev, and Joel Armia

"This is my third year, first time making the playoffs. Everything about this year was exciting," said Ehlers. "We came to training camp, everybody, there was just a different feeling in the room.

"During the playoffs, this city, everybody in our room was following what was going on. We're in the playoffs as a city. It was an amazing time for everyone. Looking back, this team was something special. Going through it with all these guys you see every single day, and they're like a family to you is something special."

Video: YEAR END | Little and Lowry

That family has been building for years, and when Steve Mason, Dmitry Kulikov, Matt Hendricks - and later, Paul Stastny - were added, the bond between the players was made even stronger.

Together, they produced a franchise record 52 wins and 114 points in the regular season. For a player like Stastny, who had to waive a no-move clause to come to Winnipeg at the trade deadline, the memories of this season will stick with him.

"It was probably the best decision I made just for the experience, for learning, for family," said Stastny, who finished with 13 points in 19 regular season games with the Jets. "Everything was first-class here for me from ownership, to management, to coaching, to players, they made it super easy for me and my wife to fit in.

"When it came around to February and I had to make that decision, I was nervous, a little fear just because it's something different and you don't want to disrupt anything, but I couldn't have asked for a better ride."

Video: YEAR END | Morrissey and Trouba

That's what makes this city special, says General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. In fact, it came up while he was negotiating with Stastny, Mason, Hendricks, and Kulikov.

"They talk about how their wives were able to be close with other wives, how the players were able to be together. This is a unique advantage that we have in the City of Winnipeg," said Cheveldayoff. "This is a small city. You don't have to go two hours out of your way to go to your buddy's for dinner, or for wives to get together.

"I think when they're here, and I think going through the time that we did, the sacrifices the players have to make, I really think the core of the families really became united. I'm so thankful we've embraced a lot of the alumni of the Winnipeg teams of the past because that's exactly what they talked about. They talked about how their families loved it here, they talked about how their families were always together… That is distinctly and uniquely part of our Winnipeg Jet culture."

Video: YEAR END | Ehlers and Laine

That culture will be tested next season. It isn't easy to get this far, then start from scratch all over again, and earn every point necessary to get back into the playoffs.

Even when you clinch a spot, there still aren't any guarantees.

"That's going to be the hardest part for our team next year, is buying back into that, what got us to where we ultimately got to," said Wheeler. "The playoffs don't start in October. Sometimes the hardest part is making the playoffs. We'll have to buy right back into that again."

There will be a time to celebrate all the 2017-18 milestones - Laine's 44 goals, Hellebuyck's six shutouts, and Wheeler's 68 assists among them - but first, head coach Paul Maurice wants his team to get some rest and recover.

Add them all up, and this Jets team played 106 games (including the preseason). During that time, they lost nearly 300 man games to injury.

Most of those came in the regular season, and while Maurice said a handful of players will need MRIs in the coming days, he doesn't anticipate anyone not being ready for training camp.

Video: YEAR END | Copp and Hellebuyck

Maurice spoke to every player during exit interviews, and while they were mostly positive, they all feel there is unfinished business to take care of - a slightly different tone than the relief the team felt after making the playoffs in 2015.

"They were different this year," said Maurice. "Certainly positive - they like each other, they care for each other, they like being here, they like this team. But there is a sense that 'give us a couple weeks rest and we can get back to work again.'"

The Winnipeg Whiteout, like the players, will start fresh next season. The summer months will be spent gaining the strength to come back even stronger for 2018-19.

Video: YEAR END | Myers and Mason

"Obviously we want to make it even further next year, but it's not going to happen just like that," said Laine. "It doesn't matter if you make it to the Conference Final. The next year, you're automatically in - it doesn't work that way. We have to work even harder as individuals in the summer and especially next year so we can make this thing even further. Obviously we want to make the Stanley Cup Final and win the Cup, but we have to work extremely hard to get there.

"We did that this year, but it wasn't enough. We have to work a bit harder next year."

There will be a lot of memories that the players take from the season, and the fan support is one that will stick with Adam Lowry for a long time.

"We know we have terrific fans and we know we have terrific support but every game it seemed like the Whiteout party was getting bigger," said Lowry. "I knew we had the support, but it seemed like they were showing it every day. Walking through the grocery store and people are wearing jerseys on off days, driving down the street, people have hats on. They really seem to rally behind us and seemed to enjoy the experience.

"We're happy we were able to give them a long run. They certainly deserve it. They stuck with us through some thin years. Hopefully it's just the start of something where we continue to get better, and continue to try and push to get back to this spot."

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