WINNIPEG – With teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference holding ground, it’s make or break time this week for the Winnipeg Jets.
They play the final three of a six-game homestand, starting Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, as they try to nudge their way into a playoff spot.
Coach Claude Noel says it’s an exciting time and he was probably one of the few who saw much positive in the spring snowfall that blanketed the city Monday.
“It was good that it snowed, reminds us we’re in the hockey season,” he said after practice.
Thanks to their recent play, the Jets are still very much in hockey season, but even three wins in a row have failed to help them gain much ground. As of Monday morning, the New York Rangers sat in the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with 46 points, the Jets just below them with 44.
They took a little time off after last Thursday’s win over the Florida Panthers but practised Sunday and Monday. Noel said Sunday’s session, opened to an invited crowd, was less effective.
“I thought we had a good practice today, better than yesterday’s practice. Our focus was way better, we had good energy. I think the guys are loose.”
Evander Kane, a big part of Winnipeg’s resurgence with three goals and two assists in the last three wins, agreed.
“It’s easy to be kind of a little tense going into the week but I think it was pretty loose out there which was nice to see,” he said.
“It’s pretty obvious, the importance of this week, in determining our season.”
A few weeks ago, the Jets were leading the Southeast Division when they went into a slide that saw Washington overtake them. In fact, it was the Capitals that started them on their downward spiral.
When they met March 21, the Jets seemed firmly in control at 16-12-2 and 34 points. The Capitals were struggling at 12-16-1 and just 25 points.
But after two back-to-back wins over the Jets, Washington went on a run that now has them in the driver’s seat at 48 points.
Tampa too has struggled, which should be good news. Like Tampa, All three of the teams Winnipeg beat last week—Philadelphia, Buffalo and Florida—sit below the Jets in the standings.
But forward Chris Thorburn says they can’t take anyone for granted, no matter what their record. It should also be noted that the Lightning took the Capitals to overtime Saturday before dropping 3-1 to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.
Thorburn says to beat the Lightning, the Jets have to stick to the formula that has helped them win lately.
“We’ve just got to understand, in order for us to be successful we’ve just got to keep it simple and just do what we’ve been doing the last three games,” he says.
“That’s playing 200 feet, playing physical, creating some energy and I think if we do that and just not worry about the pressure side of it . . . success should be in order for us.”
The pressure is there though. No matter what they do, with only six games left, wins are a must. Even then, a little co-operation from the teams ahead of them would also help the Jets.
Their next games at home against Tampa, Carolina and the New York Islanders look vital, particularly since the Jets travel to Washington April 23 and face Northeast-Division leading Montreal April 25 to close out the 48-game season.