Maybe it was the sight of Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck making a save, then immediately going on the attack with an impressive end-to-end rush in which he stickhandled through several teammates and scored on crease partner Eric Comrie.
"I think everyone saw that I beat Neal Pionk in a race, so I think I proved my point," Hellebuyck bragged after the fact. "I’m faster than him and that was the main purpose of that drill was just to prove that I’m faster than him. Everyone saw it."
Sure, sure. Keep telling yourself that.
Or perhaps it was hearing assistant coach Charlie Huddy, in the middle of a possession drill in which one group of players seemingly had the puck forever, shouting for them to "hurry up — I have a plane to catch!" Or watching Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kristian Vesalainen and Brenden Dillon competing in a game of H-O-R-S-E, in which they had to hit the empty net from various distances on the ice — while shooting with their wrong hand. You’ve never seen an NHL player look more feeble.
Whatever the case, there was definitely a "last day before holidays" vibe in the air on Tuesday morning at Canada Life Centre, where the Jets gathered for one last skate before parting ways for what is slated to be a four-day break, but could ultimately last even longer.
That’s because COVID-19 and the Omicron variant is also in the air these days, wreaking havoc on the best-laid plans in the NHL. A total of 50 games have been postponed so far, including Tuesday night’s scheduled Jets tilt in Nashville, and Wednesday’s affair in Dallas. Those will all have to be made up, likely during what was going to be a three-week Winter Olympics break in February.
With more than 130 players currently in protocols (none from Winnipeg), along with five head coaches and dozens of additional team support staff, there’s no guarantee it will be business as usual beginning Boxing Day. The Jets, and the other 31 clubs around the league, are required to report back that day, with the regular-season set to resume on Monday. You might want to mark Winnipeg’s game against Minnesota that night down in pencil at this point, given the rapidly developing situation.
"Just being able to adapt. Right now, this appears to be the norm. If you have the mindset to expect the unexpected, you’ll be ready for whatever happens, whatever comes your way," admitted interim coach Dave Lowry.
The extended break allows the Jets some extra time to savour a 4-2 victory on Sunday over St. Louis that snapped a three-game winless streak. It was the first victory for Lowry, who took over from Paul Maurice late last week.
“Just being able to adapt. Right now, this appears to be the norm. If you have the mindset to expect the unexpected, you’ll be ready for whatever happens, whatever comes your way." — Winnipeg Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry
"We just wanted to make sure that we got a good little crisp skate in, let them feel the puck, get up and down the ice, let them have a little bit of fun," Lowry said of Tuesday’s 40-minute workout, with the next game still at least six days away. "We all know where their minds are right now, they’re ready to get home, they’re ready to get on their breaks. So we talked about being ready to come back to work on Sunday."
The NHL is not restricting players from going home over the holidays, although they will still be subject to testing protocols should they wish to go across the Canada-U.S. border and back. They must also test negative on Sunday before being allowed back into team facilities.
Lowry’s son, Adam, missed practice for what was described as "maintenance" after getting banged up against the Blues. Josh Morrissey was also absent, described as feeling under the weather. Injured forwards Blake Wheeler, Evgeny Svechnikov and David Gustafsson were also held out. Defenceman Nate Schmidt, who missed the St. Louis game with a non-COVID illness, was present. Kristian Reichel, who made his NHL debut against St. Louis, and C.J. Suess, who played his second career NHL game against the Blues, also skated Tuesday, but returned to the Manitoba Moose later in the day.
Once the Jets are cleared for takeoff again, they have plenty of work on the horizon. At 14-11-5, they are currently three points out of the final wildcard playoff spot in the Western Conference with 52 games remaining. They are also six points out of the top three in the Central Division, which brings an automatic playoff berth.
"There’s some good, but I think this team has a lot of potential that we haven’t hit yet," said forward Kyle Connor, the team’s leading scorer. "Even me, personally, I think we’ve still got another level to get to and I think this break is almost coming at a good time for us to kind of regroup, spend the holidays with the family, almost a mental break, and come back for a big second half. Even with everything going on with the coaching, I think this break is coming at a good point for us."
"... I think this break is almost coming at a good time for us to kind of regroup, spend the holidays with the family, almost a mental break, and come back for a big second half. Even with everything going on with the coaching, I think this break is coming at a good point for us.” — Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor
"We’ve played some good hockey and we’ve played some hockey that we need to improve on," added Hellebuyck. "Our consistency is really the biggest part of what I see needs to improve upon after Christmas. Like I was saying a little while ago, after Christmas teams are getting better and the teams that make the playoffs just continue to win and win and win. It’s really hard to gain points on people. We really have to find a way to be consistent and be reliable for each other and play that same strong game that we know we can."
Lowry hasn’t had much of a chance yet to put his personal stamp on the club, with two games and two quick practices under his belt so far. But he believes there’s plenty of runaway left.
"I think the big thing for us is what we want to improve on most is the consistency. Just coming in and trying to put a string together here where we can make up some ground that we’ve lost," said Lowry. "As far as 30 games, we’ve had some good games, and had some really good games where we weren’t rewarded in the results. But there’s a lot of positives. Obviously we don’t like where we are in the standings and we know we’re going to have to work to dig ourselves out of a hole."
All of that scratching and clawing will have to wait at least a few days as players now attend to even more important matters.
"You should see our tree right now. There are way too many presents under it," said Hellebuyck, who got married and became a new father in 2021. "(His newborn son) is not even going to be able to open them himself, so I think it’s more for mom and dad. But I really look forward to taking pictures and doing all of the little things with the kid that you take pictures of and show him when he’s older and embarrass (him). These are the memories I’m going to make and cherish for the rest of my life."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.