Maybe they were tired of hearing they weren’t good enough.
Or maybe they were riding the high of winning hockey games. After all, the Winnipeg Jets had just won three straight and collected points in their last five.
Heck, maybe last night’s full moon was to blame.
Whatever it was that lit the fire under the collective butts of the Jets Thursday night in their game against a gifted Pittsburgh Penguins club, you can bet they’ll want to bottle it and keep it close, like a winning lottery ticket.
The Jets may have ended with a loss Thursday night — the final verdict was a 4-3 shootout victory for the Pens — but the mood after the game was hardly similar to that of losses in the past.
‘Hell of a game’
“I have a hard time categorizing this one as a loss,” said Jets’ winger Blake Wheeler, who finished the game with two assists, both of which helped the Jets climb back from a 3-1 deficit in the second period.
“That was a pretty fun game to be a part of and the way we battled, I’m not going to look at it as a loss.”
The Jets entered this one having played some of their best hockey in three seasons. A four-game road trip where they finished 3-0-1, followed by a win over the Nashville Predators Tuesday night, not only provided the Jets with a bit of swagger of late, but gave them a much-needed boost in the standings.
But for some reason, none of that mattered. Instead, it was all about the Pittsburgh Penguins and hot they were playing.
The Pens were 8-2-1 heading into Winnipeg, winners of their last five games, and had toyed with the competition for the first month and some of the NHL season.
They had the league’s top power play, scoring on more than 40 per cent of their chances. The Jets, well, they were well below that, making good on less than 10 per cent while on the man advantage.
Pittsburgh had averaged four goals per game. That was more than double for Winnipeg.
So with the Jets’ backs up against the wall, instead of cowering, they scratched and clawed their way to earn a point in the standings, though it very well could have been two.
“In the shootout, and that’s it,” said Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice when asked where he felt the Penguins had the edge. “We played a hell of a game. Our top end guys were really good.”
Fists of fury
Not only were the Jets’ top players their best, they were also their toughest.
Wheeler, Evander Kane, and Jacob Trouba all recorded points on the night, but their impact in this game didn’t just come from their sticks, but from their knuckles too.
'I don’t think we’ve had enough of that in the past, of guys willing to put it on the line for each other and I think that’s a great sign.' - Blake Wheeler
Wheeler got things started, dropping the mitts with Robert Bortuzzo late in the first period. Wheeler had taken exception to a stick check by the Pens’ defenceman, and for the third time this season, he retaliated with fisticuffs.
Midway through the second period it was Kane’s turn. He laid the boom on Simon Despres, another Pittsburgh blue-liner. Trouba then followed that up by trading knuckle sandwiches with Zach Sill, but was handed just a roughing penalty despite landing a few healthy jabs in the scuffle.
If that wasn’t enough, rookie Adam Lowry got in the mix, engaging in the game’s fourth and final tilt with the Pens’ Craig Adams, a 13-year NHL veteran.
“That’s our game: we battle,” said Wheeler. “We’re not going to go toe-to-toe with these guys. We’re just going to muck it up and we’re going to try and outwork them on every puck and with that comes a certain level of passion and when you’re playing a contact sport it can boil over sometimes.”
Boil over is right. The two teams combined for 102 penalty minutes.
“I like it,” added Wheeler. “I don’t think we’ve had enough of that in the past, of guys willing to put it on the line for each other and I think that’s a great sign.”
A fighting chance
The Jets have won some games this year; impressive ones too like the 1-0 game against Chicago last week. But none looked like this one.
The Jets looked engaged. They killed penalties and won puck battles.
It looked like playoff hockey.
So after a performance like that, it was difficult to know just where Maurice stood on the issue of his top-end talent putting their bodies in harm’s way.
“All that stuff happened in a split second,” said Maurice.
“I’d prefer that those guys were on our bench and not the penalty box but I much prefer them having the outcome they had, getting in to the fights that they did, because they were playing with that much fight and that much aggression.”
And maybe that’s exactly what this team, and their fans, need right now.