Time can be a funny thing.
This time last year, 47 games into the 2013-14 season, the Winnipeg Jets had just finished being booed off stage following a 6-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The loss dropped the Jets’ record to 19-23-5 on the year, further cementing their position in the basement cellar of the Central Division.
It was the start of a serious free fall for the Jets. The loss to the Blue Jackets was their fifth straight, and there was little to suggest that a turnaround was anywhere close.
After that game Jets captain Andrew Ladd preached the need to stay positive, though his demeanour was anything but. He, too couldn’t explain why the Jets had hit such a rut.
Ladd described the mood as living in a deep pit, with each loss making it harder and harder “to crawl and scratch your way out.”
Forward Bryan Little talked about the added pressure of living in a hockey-crazed market like Winnipeg, one even the most oblivious of players couldn’t escape from.
He was reminded of their slow and painful demise when he watched TV and when he read the local newspapers.
“It’s definitely magnified when you’re in Winnipeg,” Little said.
Clearly, change was needed. And it came.
The next day Claude Noel was fired as head coach, ending his tenure with the Jets at 177 games; a span that lasted fewer than three seasons in Winnipeg. Perry Pearn, an assistant coach, was also let go.
The following day at practice players shouldered the blame, even if some were secretly happy for the change. After all, they needed to at least look sympathetic as a new boss was already on his way.
Paul Maurice, a year removed as head coach of the Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, opted to leave his comfy seat as an NHL analyst for TSN to take a stab at leading the Jets back to respectability.
After a successful final few months of the season — the Jets still didn’t make the playoffs that year — Maurice agreed to stay on, signing a four-year commitment to a team he said he felt could one day win.
That was then. And here is now.
Fast-forward to Wednesday night. The Jets, now 48 games into the 2014-15 season, are in much different circumstances than those they were in a year ago. The only similarity to that time was the team on the other bench.
Indeed, this time when Columbus came to town it wasn’t boo-birds but thunderous cheers that filled the MTS Centre as fans praised the effort of the Jets’ 4-0 win. It marked their fifth straight victory, the longest win streak for Winnipeg this season.
Now, the Jets are not only fighting for a playoff spot, but are jockeying for a position with the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. With a record of 26-14-8, Winnipeg is just two points shy of second place in their division.
Change, it would appear, is no longer needed.
“There was a lot of frustration,” said Maurice when asked Wednesday to describe the mood of the Jets when he first took office last year.
“They wanted to play hard, they wanted to play better and now I think the general feeling going in there is that we’ve been pretty good, that we’re on the right path.”
That journey to more stable soil hasn’t been an easy one for the Jets.
An unheard of number of injuries to their blue line — at one point the Jets had just five healthy defencemen — combined with a gruelling schedule that most recently saw them play seven games in 11 nights, and the constant mental and physical battle of competing within a Western Conference all could have buried this team.
Instead, it helped define them.
“I love our room,” said Jets winger Blake Wheeler. “We’ve stuck together all year. We had a tough start to the season and we made a commitment to each other to just do the right things...”
Deciding whom to give credit for the Jets' turnaround is a difficult task.
Maurice is often praised for his influence on the players.
The incredible play of defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, the only player to be selected from the Jets to play in this weekend’s All-Star game, is another.
Then there’s goalie Michael Hutchinson, who recorded his second shutout of the year Wednesday to improve to 14-4-2 on the year, finally giving the Jets some much-needed stability in net.
Or maybe it’s the play of the Jets top line in Wheeler, Little and Ladd; perhaps the most underrated lines in the entire NHL right now.
If you can’t pick just one, don’t worry. The Jets can’t — scratch that— the Jets won’t either.
“Our game is not predicated on one single guy, it’s about a group of guys playing the right way and that’s why we have success,” said Wheeler.
Spend any amount of time in that dressing room and it quickly becomes clear the collective success is what the Jets take most pride in, like not losing more than two games in a row since starting the year 1-4.
Or the fact the Jets have twice put together a stretch of eight games this season where they’ve collected at least a point in the standings.
But even if the Jets have earned the right to pat themselves on the back, perhaps the greatest achievement this season is the fact that they won’t.
“There are areas that we can get better at so I don’t think anybody is overly excited,” said Maurice.
“I don’t think we’ve been lucky. And I think that we can get better.”