WINNIPEG – For most of the regular season, the Winnipeg Jets looked like a pretty good bet to make the playoffs.
Now their playoff hopes are slim at best entering Thursday’s must-win game against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Jets fell back in the Eastern Conference standings after a five-game slide started in late March. That forced a mad rush over the last couple weeks to catch up to the teams ahead of them.
Winnipeg has posted an impressive 6-1-1 record in its last eight games, but the odds are still not in their favour.
“Had every team in front of us not won every single game, we might be talking about a different situation here,” forward Blake Wheeler said Wednesday after practice.
For the Jets to get in, Winnipeg (24-20-3) must beat the visiting Habs and hope the Ottawa Senators or New York Rangers lose their remaining games.
Wheeler said the Jets have to give it all they’ve got in their last game of the regular season.
“We’ve certainly left it all on the ice up to this point and we’re going to do that tomorrow night and cross our fingers and that’s the best we can do,” he said.
Montreal (27-14-5) has already secured a playoff berth but the Canadiens have struggled down the stretch. The Habs have lost five of their last six and don’t want to go into the playoffs in a slump.
They’re also tied with Boston for their Northeast Division lead and the Bruins have a game in hand.
“I don’t think it’s a switch that you want to turn on and off,” Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban said after practice. “These next two games are going to be pretty huge for us to build our confidence and get in the right frame.”
Coach Michel Therrien worked his players hard Wednesday at the MTS Centre.
“We need to play with more intensity, we all know, especially when we start the game,” Therrien said.
“We did it for the most part of the season—establish the tone of the game—and we’ve got to get back to those good habits.”
Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said his team has matured since last season but his players still need to get their goal differential into positive territory.
“That’s not because we don’t want to get there, it’s because we’re not able to right now, whether that’s partially special teams or partially personnel,” he said.
Wheeler said his teammates can hold their heads up for the way they have battled back to close out the season with at least a chance of making the playoffs.
“There’s going to be ups and downs in any season,” he said. “We had our ups and we had our downs. It’s true that we set ourselves behind the eight ball but with that said, what we’ve done down the stretch is what I’m going to choose to focus on.”