Stick out your toe, Tim – you may be needed.
The 1,360-kilogram statue to Timothy Eaton that graces the second-floor of the downtown Bell MTS Place near where Eaton’s department store once sto
od before becoming the new home of the Winnipeg Jets is getting a workout this week. Fans rub the toe of the left shoe of the monument, burnishing the bronze to a point where it gleams from the polish.
They may need all the luck touching the toe is said to deliver.
As the New Year dawned, the St. Louis Blues – the team the Jets will meet Wednesday in the opening game of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs – were dropping to dead last place in the NHL standings. They had fired their coach, Mike Yeo, and brought in Craig Berube, a former enforcer as a player and with limited NHL head coaching experience. They recalled little-known goaltender Jordan Binnington from the minor leagues two weeks before Christmas and, slowly, matters began to change to a point where, briefly last weekend, the Blues held down first place in the Central Division.
Binnington went 24-5-1 in 32 games, including five shutouts and a sparkling .927 save percentage – good enough that this late comer has entered the conversation for the Calder Trophy that goes to the league’s top rookie.
To Winnipeg fans, this must seem most improbable. The two teams met four times during the regular season and it was embarrassing … to the Blues. The Jets defeated the Blues 5-1 in their first encounter, giving St. Louis its worst opening night home loss in franchise history.
The next game, roughly three weeks later, the Blues couldn’t hold a lead through the third period and went down in overtime. A month later, the Jets rolled over the Blues when young Patrik Laine struck for five goals, equaling a record against the Blues held by people named Gretzky and Lemieux.
In early December, the Blues finally won a game 1-0 on a Jake Allen shutout.
By the end of 2018, Winnipeg had the best record in the Western Conference, the Blues the worst in the league. Then the Blues went 30-10-5 in what has to go down as one of the greatest reversals of fortune in NHL history.
Out at the Jets practice facility near Assiniboia Downs, Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice was asked Monday what differences he saw in the Blues heading into Wednesday's Game 1.
“The biggest difference,” Maurice said, “is that we haven’t played them this year – we last saw them in ’18.”
The Jets, however, are not necessarily the Jets that sputtered down the stretch, failed to hold onto their No. 1 spot in the conference and barely held onto home-ice advantage in the opening round.
The team was badly hurt by injuries to key defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey. Byfuglien missed more than a month with a lower-body injury and only returned for the last five games of the season. Morrissey, out since Feb. 24 with an upper-body injury, returned to skating and non-contact recently, then full contact, and now says he’s ready to play on Wednesday – though he’s apparently been saying that for a couple of weeks or so. Maurice chose to ease the defenceman back, but suggested Monday that he will indeed play.
Fans beyond the cult of Jets see big Byfuglien as critical to the team’s success, and to a degree he is, but this has been a year of injuries for the 33 year old. He missed 40 games, almost half the season.
Fans more familiar with the team have come to see Morrissey, a 24-year-old Calgary native who was the team’s 13th overall pick in 2013, as blossoming into the team’s most gifted defender, an exquisite skater with extremely high hockey sense. Though he missed 29 games in this his third season, the young blueliner counted six goals and 31 points. He has become a power-play specialist and power-play success is required in the postseason.
Morrissey knows there have been doubters this spring. After such success last season in reaching the Western Conference final against the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the Jets had been expected to soar again this year, yet finished 15 points behind their total a year ago.
“It doesn’t matter what people outside the room have to say,” Morrissey told reporters. “We’re excited to prove people wrong and, most importantly, prove to ourselves that we can win and do what we’ve been working towards all year.”
Maurice believes last year’s experience will serve his team well this year, as “You really can’t explain what it is to someone until they go through it.”
The playoffs, he says, are more passionate, more exciting, more draining. “When you’re used to playing 24 [minutes a game] and now 16 feels like that.”
Most importantly, Maurice cautioned, will in all likelihood be the goaltending, whether the unknown (to the Jets) Binnington continues his remarkable rookie year play or whether Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck continues to play as he has recently and finds the form that so rewarded the Jets in last year’s playoffs.
“It’s the National Goaltending League, that’s for sure,” Maurice said.
“It’s going to be more often than not a stalemate,” added Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler, who led the team with 91 points, “and [then] somebody’s going to score a big goal.”
“We’re just worrying about this team and how we’re playing,” Hellebuyck said Monday. “We’re going to bring it from the second the puck drops. … Bring our A-plus game.”
And perhaps, at some point before that puck drops Wednesday evening, drift by Timothy Eaton for a quick, discreet rub of the toe.