WINNIPEG – It’s only a small road trip as road trips go—two games in three days—but the Winnipeg Jets know how important it is if they want to keep their NHL playoff hopes alive.
“It’s getting that time when every game is going to be important for us,” says Bryan Little, who scored the winner Tuesday night at home to keep the gap from widening between the Jets (24-24-6) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (28-19-6).
The Jets have played well at home, although lately they have slipped a little there as well. They sat in the No. 10 spot in the league as of Wednesday, after sitting at No. 5 at the end of 2011.
They’ve struggled away from the cheering home crowd at MTS Centre, where sellouts are guaranteed until the next decade. That needs to change.
Coach Claude Noel laid it out at the beginning of the week, after returning from a disappointing six-game trip where they won only two—one in overtime and another in a shootout.
“If you play three games a week, you have to win two of three,” he said. “That’s the winning percentage you’ve got to get to, you can’t go to .500—.500 doesn’t cut it.”
And, as the games start to pile up, the chance to make up those missed opportunities diminish. The Jets are up a couple of games already on some of their key conference rivals.
“We have a two-week window here where we have to make things happen,” said Noel. “It’s really hard at this time of year to make up points when you get too far behind.”
There are those who suggest the Jets just don’t have the offensive talent needed to do a lot better than they did when they were the Thrashers, playing out of Atlanta last season.
Scoring is certainly something that doesn’t come easy. They also sat 23rd in the 30-team league as of Wednesday in the goals-for column.
Losing their best sniper in mid-January due to a concussion didn’t help but Evander Kane is back and says he’s feeling great. But, while he may lead the Jets, Kane only has 18 goals so far this season.
Noel has been trying to coach teamwork into his squad to make up for any deficit when it comes to individual ability and the team knows the tight-checking performance they put on Tuesday is what has to happen more often.
That, and making a few more pucks go into the net.
It may be Noel’s style but the Jets’ locker-room isn’t a place where doom and gloom have much of a foothold.
“All season long we staying positive, I think that’s the way we should be,” says goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, whose steady hand has kept them as close as they are to that elusive playoff spot.
“We have to improve the road record. It’s going to start tomorrow and the next game.”
Noel also saw something else he has been hoping for Tuesday night, an unlikely contender for the sniper badge stepping up his level of play.
It was Chris Thorburn’s second goal of the season that got the Jets rolling and tied the game.
Thorburn is ready for the road and says the team knows what it has to do as it jockeys in the Southeast Division, where only a few points separate most of the teams.
It’s looking more and more like winning the Southeast may be the only way to make the playoffs. As division leader and an automatic top-three conference seed, Washington has displaced the Florida Panthers, who now sit just above the Jets.
“If we’re going to make this push we’ve got to improve our road record,” said Thorburn. “(There’s) no bigger of a game than against Washington. They’re just a couple ahead of us.”