WINNIPEG – Battered and bruised by an 82-game grind and four-game playoff sweep, the Winnipeg Jets are already taking stock and looking ahead to next season.
The Jets withstood a barrage of injuries that at one point knocked out their top four defencemen and later forced general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to make a series of trades, but against the playoff-tested Anaheim Ducks, there ultimately wasn’t enough left in the tank to muster even one post-season victory.
“We’ve got a lot of room to improve and to get better with experience,” coach Paul Maurice said after Wednesday’s 5-2 home loss in Game 4. “But before you get to any of that, you’ve got to accomplish, I think, what went on here … that guy over there’s playing with a broken bone, that guy’s playing over there with a tear and there’s no way I’m not going to give what I have.”
Maurice said the Jets dealt with eight significant injuries, including four at the start of the playoffs. Mathieu Perreault had a lower-body injury that caused him to miss Game 1 while captain Andrew Ladd’s undisclosed injury often kept him from practising over the past two-plus months.
“You need that from your captain, you need that guy in the room doing whatever he can to stay in and he did,” Maurice said. “I would never, ever question his willingness, grit, determination. He could’ve very easily come out of that lineup 2 1/2 months ago and nobody would’ve said a word to him. But he wouldn’t.”
Defenceman Adam Pardy took a big hit from Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey in Game 3 and Maurice said he “couldn’t in good conscience put him in the lineup” for Game 4.
“We’ve got guys playing with broken bones,” Maurice said. “It’s a good learning experience for your room because it sets a level of willingness that you need to carry with you.”
No matter how beat up the Jets were, Maurice pointed out that the Ducks were likely dealing with their own injuries. The bottom line is Anaheim was the better team in the series, even though the first three games were decided by a total of four goals.
What the Ducks have that the Jets didn’t, at least until now, is the experience of winning and losing in the playoffs. A year ago Anaheim beat Dallas in the first round before losing in seven games to the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings.
The Jets were making their first playoff appearance since the franchise moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011.
“We don’t have a lot of experience in these types of situations and maybe that was a factor in some of those games that we couldn’t close out,” winger Blake Wheeler said. “As a group the strides we took this year, in a few weeks I think we’re going to look back and be pretty happy with where we sit today compared to where we were.”
Corey Perry, the Ducks winger who’s tied for the playoff lead in scoring with seven points in four games, called the Jets “a heck of a hockey team.”
“They’re going to have a lot of success coming forward,” Perry said. “They get behind this crowd, they push and away they go.”
The boisterous “whiteout” crowd at the MTS Centre was one of the Jets’ biggest advantages, but the fans couldn’t propel them to a home victory. The next step is to reward the loyal fans with more than just a playoff appearance.
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Cheveldayoff and Maurice are in place for the long-term, and while there are several unrestricted free agents who need contracts, the core group led by Ladd, Bryan Little and Wheeler isn’t going anywhere.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Wheeler said. “We’re disappointed, don’t get me wrong. There are no feelings of being gratified right now. But I think the way this organization looks today compared to where it looked in September and October, we’re going in the right direction.”
Maurice talked of the “foundation” being in place but with the caveat that the Jets have to do all this again next season just to get back into the playoffs. He closed his final post-game news conference by saying his team “took a step forward.”
Some of that stepping forward has to do with accepting the sting of being swept.
“It’s hard to see it now, but hopefully it’s a good learning experience for everyone in this room, especially the young guys,” Little said. “I think this makes everyone hungrier for next year.”