USA TODAY Sports
As the Jets put the finishing strokes to a neat-and-tidy victory over the Washington Capitals in Obamaland on Tuesday, a thought occurred: I was no longer watching the Atlanta Thrashers.
That's right. The Atlanta Thrashers and the ghost of their losing, indifferent ways have been exorcized. Finally.
Yes, I realize we've been calling this outfit the Winnipeg Jets since late June of 2011. And I know they've been playing out of the Little Hockey House on the Prairie since autumn of 2011. But those guys—the actual on-ice product—were the Winnipeg Jets in name only. They still played like the Thrashers, accepted losing like the Thrashers, talked like the Thrashers and crumbled in the back half of the season like the Thrashers.
Something has happened, though.
I've never thought of Boston or Washington, D.C., as Lourdes, but what we witnessed on Monday afternoon and Tuesday night borders on the miraculous. The Jets played the Bruins to a 2-2 standoff through 65 minutes of spirited shinny in Beantown, then they dismantled the Great 8 and the Capitals, 4-2, in a blend of spirit, skill and a stick-it-to-them mindset. Three points of a possible four. On the road. A victory in the hind end of back-to-back assignments. This, on the heels of a dismal, discouraging and Thrasher-like 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators in the home opener on Saturday.
Hands up anyone who saw this coming. Be honest. You figured you'd hear Don Cherry do Coachless Corner en francais before the Jets would drift in and out of Boston and Washington and return to River City with three points stashed in their duffel bags. Not a chance.
So what transpired in the past two days tells me a thing or two about these Jets. It tells me that coughing up a hairball like they did versus the Senators is no longer acceptable. It's no longer something that you slough off as the cost of doing business. It also tells me that they've bought in. That is to say, the message that head coach Claude Noel and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff have been preaching lo these many months is no longer meeting with resistance. It tells me that the Jets have acquired mental toughness. They now realize that they have nothing to fear. They know they can compete. And win. Anywhere. And you should never undervalue the mental aspect of the game.
Before this stunted season began, I believed the Jets would be tooth-and-toenail to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. I still do. The standings in their Southeast Division and Eastern Conference will look like a mosh pit until the final weekend of activity. But eighth place in the EC shouldn't be the goal. Winning the Southeast Division should be the aim. That gives you one of the top three seedings in the playoffs, which means home-ice advantage in the early skirmishing. And, based on the goings-on in Boston and Washington, these Jets realize that topping the Southeast is doable.
I don't know about you, but I don't see any juggernauts in the Southeast. Carolina? Nope. Tampa Bay. Nope. Florida? Nope. Washington? Obviously not. Eastern Conference power resides elsewhere, in places like Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, etc.
Do the Jets have the skill level of their Southeast adversaries? Well, they don't have a Steven Stamkos on the roster, but who does? They've got Dustin Byfuglien, a rare bit of business. Toby Enstrom is highly skilled. Zach Bogosian is the complete package. Evander Kane showed what he's all about when he bulled his way to a loose puck, then smoothly and skillfully set up Blake Wheeler's goal against the Capitals.
The talent is there, to be sure. Apparently the proper mindset is, too.
It's often said that winning is contagious. That it's habit-forming. Well, so is losing. The Thrashers were evidence of that. They lost because they expected to lose. Defeat became ho-hum.
Noel and GM Cheveldayoff can talk about changing that culture of indifference all they like, but the message is unheard if it arrives upon deaf ears. As the Buddhists tell us, the teacher is not present until the student arrives.
Well, it would appear that the Winnipeg Jets have arrived. Welcome to River City, boys.