Winnipeg Jets return to ice after Olympic break, two points out of playoff spot

WINNIPEG – It was back to business for the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday, as they skated for the first time since the Olympic break and prepared to resume their quest for the playoff berth that has eluded the franchise for so many years.

With 22 games left and just over a week till they play again, coach Paul Maurice says he wants to get started right away sharpening defensive neutral zone play and forechecking without the puck.

“Our sole focus is trying to find ways that we can be more aggressive with it,” he said.

The Jets were still minus their four Olympians—forwards Olli Jokinen, Blake Wheeler and Michael Frolik, plus No. 1 netminder Ondrej Pavelec remain in Sochi—but they made up for that with a healthy Evander Kane, Jim Slater and Matt Halischuk, all back from the injury list.

Slater was out the longest after sports hernia surgery in Montreal. The centre and one of the team’s faceoff leaders last played Oct. 18 but he says he now feels strong and ready to compete.

It’s a far different team than the one he left, with the Jets on a roll since Maurice took over from Claude Noel. They now sit just two points out of that coveted playoff spot.

Slater says its always tough to be on the sidelines when a new coach comes in.

“The slate’s wiped clean and when you can’t get out there and play and show him what you’ve got, it’s definitely tough, you don’t know where you fit in,” he said.

But Maurice helped to set his mind at ease.

“I’ve played against Paul a lot of my career when he was in Carolina, so we had a talk, he knows what kind of player I am and just wanted me to get healthy, come back strong and ready to go.”

The focus may be on getting his team ready for their first game Feb. 27 when the Phoenix Coyotes visit Winnipeg, but Maurice says he’s still arranged practice Friday to let the team watch Canada and the U.S. play in the Olympics.

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“We’ve moved practice so that we can get together and watch that as a team,” he said.

“It’s a big deal so we want to respect that and enjoy it. . . At the end of the day hockey events are what we’re all about, right, and this is a big game.”

It’s been seven years since the Atlanta Thrashers were swept in the first round of the NHL playoffs in their only appearance.

Kane last played Jan. 26 in Chicago. He was out twice with an injured hand, the second time after what turned out to be a premature return resulted in an infection that saw his hand swell to the size of a baseball.

He says he’s sure he’ll be ready to go Feb. 27 and he likes where the Jets are now sitting.

“We put ourselves in a position now where we can make a push and we have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs and contend,” he said.

“The last part of the schedule we play the teams that kind of bunched in with us so it’s going to be an good opportunity for us to make a push and finish off strong.”

Team captain Andrew Ladd says the time to practice will help the Jets get their pace back up.

“I think that was the best part of our game, the last 10 games or so . . We were playing (with) speed and confidence and we’ve got to find a way to get that back.”

He said it’s also good to see players like Slater and Halischuk return after long absences.

“It’s nice to have some extra bodies.”