WINNIPEG -- Fifteen hours after he found out his team had clinched a playoff spot, Head Coach Paul Maurice met with the media at MTS Centre. Maurice, who had coached in his 1,200th career game in Thursday’s 1-0 shootout loss to Colorado, was still as proud of his players as he was minutes after learning the team’s fate.
“I’m happy for two groups. The players, especially, because they worked so darn hard this year, from training camp on out. You need a payoff for that,” he said. “I’m happy for them and I’m happy for all the people that have been here a lot longer than I have… There’s been a lot of effort spent this year and it’s good for that group to get a reward for their work.”
Even after coaching the Winnipeg Jets to their first playoff berth since the franchise relocated to Winnipeg, Maurice said his phone didn’t blow up with an overwhelming amount of congratulatory messages.
“I’ve probably got the lowest phone bill of anyone in the National Hockey League. I have some friends and some people that are pulling for the team, and then I had a bunch of numbers pop up,” he said. “Most of the people around you have a harder time dealing with the pressure that goes on, the anxiety, because they’re not working through it. They’re watching on TV. It’s harder for them, so there were a lot of relieved texts last night and this morning.”
That relief spilled onto the intersection of Portage and Main last night, where hundreds of Winnipeg Jets fans celebrated the team’s achievement. But before playoff hockey can return to the city, the Jets have a 2 pm matinee against the team that helped them clinch, the Calgary Flames. Had Calgary not beat the Los Angeles Kings Thursday night, Saturday’s game would have had enormous playoff implications for both teams.
“The truth of it was, I did not want to have to come back to this game on Saturday. It did not set up well for us,” Maurice said. “The physical cost in Minnesota and St. Louis on back-to-back nights was great… Getting back at three o’clock in the morning and having to play at two o’clock in the afternoon, I did not like the way that schedule looked at all.”
But the game still needs to be played. Calgary also clinched a playoff spot with their win over Los Angeles, but they can still get home ice advantage in their series with the Vancouver Canucks with a win.
Maurice said his line-up will look different than it did on Thursday. Ondrej Pavelec will not dress, Toby Enstrom will play (after missing the last three with an injury), recent call up Connor Hellebuyck will back up Michael Hutchinson, and other players with nagging injuries will be held out of the regular season finale.
“I think we’ll actually have a better chance to win tomorrow because of it. You can’t replace your good players, but we were absolutely gassed last night,” Maurice said. “We outshot (Colorado) 41-21, so we were effective and they competed as hard as they could, but there was nothing left. We’ve got a better chance of winning tomorrow with a bunch of excited guys coming into the line-up.”
One of those “guys” Maurice refers to is Andrew Copp, who was the captain of Michigan’s NCAA team this season, before he signed an entry-level contract with the Jets on March 26. Maurice is still deciding if Copp will be in the line-up, but if the 20-year-old does play, Maurice won’t put much stock in his performance.
“If he goes out and bangs in two, you’re not trading (Scheifele),” Maurice joked. “I’m going to watch him skate and get a feel for what he’s doing on the bench. I really like what he’s doing during the skates. You can tell at some point he’s going to fit here.”
But during a lifestyle that focuses on ‘one game at a time,’ as the cliché goes, Maurice allowed himself to look forward to the postseason. As much as it was a goal for the team when training camp opened, Maurice also said the season has been just as much about learning.
“We’re talking about establishing hard things. Hard things to do with this team, like work ethic, the mental toughness that it takes to fight through injuries, to get over tough losses like Chicago and New York – and now you don’t have to sell it the same way.
“That’s the big benefit here now. They’ve done it all year, they’ve gotten that payoff and they get a chance to play in the really fun, meaningful games.”
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com