Paul Maurice had zero expectations heading in to his first game behind the Jets bench Monday night. After all, he inherited a team mired in a five-game losing skid, sitting in last place in the Central Division and pending a miraculous late season run that if successful would warrant a motion picture deal, is all but out of the playoff picture.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you,” said Maurice following Monday’s morning skate. “Tonight, your guess is as good as mine. I’ve been here for four hours so let’s not think that this world’s going to change with my grace alone.”
To make matters worse for Maurice, the Jets had just delivered two of their worst efforts in two and a half seasons in Winnipeg that ultimately led to the dismissal of former bench boss, Claude Noel.
But despite all that was stacked up against him, the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. native was still able to deliver what Noel had been unable to do for most of the season — get the best of out every guy on the bench.
The result: a 5-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes in what was easily the Jets best game this season and perhaps even the two before.
“They wanted to get out of this,” said Maurice in his post-game talk with the media. “They wanted to make it better, and I felt the energy on the bench, the compete on the bench. The way they handled it — the way they treated each other on the bench, those were good signs.”
Many Jets fans had voiced their displeasure with Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in his decision to fire Noel. Critics called it premature and came to Noel’s defence by placing blame on the players.
But it was the players who brought the fans to their feet on Monday night, as the Jets were on the receiving end of two standing ovations from the hometown crowd including a roar of approval following the final horn.
“You may go on to win every national league award, and you may win 10 Stanley Cups, but you’re only getting one first game in the NHL,” said Maurice of his debut victory. “You get behind that bench and their playing the national anthem and you soak it in, you enjoy every minute of that game and I did.”
In the 24 hours since Maurice was named to the Jets — and in the city for that matter — he’s managed to say all the right things. He was the perfect mix of passion, smarts and wit, enough to earn approval from the local fan base eager for change.
Look in the mirror
Only one question remained — how long would it be before the change would make a positive impact? Maurice joked following the morning skate Monday, saying that he had no magic wand for the Jets problems.
But his presence, for whatever reason, was able to transform a team at their lowest point and on the brink of collapse into a team worth paying to watch.
Could this be an early sign of a growing effort in the locker room? Captain Andrew Ladd offered his take.
“When you have a coaching change it usually gives your dressing room a jolt,” said Ladd. “It makes everybody look themselves in the mirror and tell yourself you’ve got to be better. I thought, to a man, we did a good job of being ready tonight and playing the right way. “
Cheveldayoff had mentioned during his drill with the press Sunday that one of the reasons he hired Maurice was his ability to reach players.
There was an early sign of that on Monday as Ladd and Maurice shared a moment after the win. The captain picked up the game puck and presented it to his coach in celebration of his debut. Maurice, when asked what he planned to do with his new rubber plaque, took a moment to let the question sink in before giving his answer.
“I’m going to give it to my family,” Maurice said. “I’m not much of a collector of stuff. I’ve got a jersey of every team that I’ve ever coached, and I got three or four pucks that mean a lot to me and that certainly is among them. That means a lot to me. Andrew gave it to me after the game, and I will cherish it.”
There’s no doubt the feeling in the locker room is a good one right now. The vibe, for the moment, has been temporarily restored to a neutral calm.
So could Maurice be the answer?
The notion was tossed around the dressing room as each player bounced back a response contradicting the idea. Devin Setoguchi was one of them, noting another loss would have made it six straight and severely hurt the Jets’ chances of making the post season.
“We lost how many games in a row,” countered Setoguchi. “There’s going to be a spark to win a game. Can’t say it’s because we had a new coach or whatever it was. The message was pretty clear from Paul — work ethic and the rest will come.”
Speaking of Setoguchi, the Jets winger climbed out of irrelevance by snapping an 18-game goalless drought with a goal midway through the third period. Setoguchi beat Coyotes’ goalie Mike Smith high glove for his eighth and nicest goal of the year.
It was a scene Jets fans had come to forget from their offseason acquisition. After all, the goal snapped an 18-game drought for the Jets winger. His last marker came in a game against the New York Rangers back on Dec. 2, a time when Noel was still riding high as they had just earned their third win in four games.
Setoguchi wasn’t alone. Jets goalie, Ondrej Pavelec, also earned some much-needed confidence in the win. Pavelec had dropped his last six starts heading in to this one and with a new coach observing closely, it was important he solidify his starting position with a strong performance.
In the eyes of Maurice, he succeeded.
“I thought he was square in where he needed to be,” he said. “He did a real nice job keeping them in a place where we could defend -- felt safe with him.”
Right now, Jetsland feels safe with their new guy. But what happens when expectations start to kick in?
First star – Michael Frolik, WPG
Moved to a line with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd, Frolik did exactly what he was asked to do, create space with speed and be hard on the fore check. His efforts would pay off as he’d finish with a goal and was a plus-1 in 17: 21 of ice time.
Second star – Dustin Byfuglien, WPG
The big man had another solid game up front, finishing with two assists and a plus-1 in just over 20 minutes of ice time.
Third star – Devin Setoguchi, WPG
The Jets needed a big game from him and he delivered, snapping an 18-game goalless streak with a beauty top corner marker midway through the third period.