Few NHL teams have so much to offer cynics and optimists like the Winnipeg Jets.
For cynics, there’s the team’s near inability to win on the road, lack of consistent scoring and a point total that’s only five points better than the Atlanta Thrashers had at this time last year and that team failed to make the playoffs.
Cynics can also note that for much of the last three months the Jets were hard pressed to score two goals a game and the club’s power play was so abysmal, scoring just once in 12 games at one point, that head coach Claude Noel said drastic changes were needed. Throw in recent losses at home to the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders and a cynic could argue the Jets have no chance of making the playoffs.
Optimists can point to the 20 goals the Jets have scored in the last five games, including eight on the power play which is now ranked seventh in the NHL overall and first at home. They can also cite victories over the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and the 7-0 drubbing of the Florida Panthers Thursday as proof Winnipeg is a worthy playoff contender. Throw in the standout play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec, as well as Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler, who are putting up career-high numbers, and there’s good reason for fans at the MTS Centre to chant “We want first place,” which they did Thursday.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The Jets have been miserable on the road, posting a record of 11-17-4 so far this season compared to 20-10-4 at the MTS Centre. And that has translated into some remarkable inconsistency. For example, the Jets piled up 21 points in December when the team went 10-3-1 and played 12 of 14 games at home. One month later, with nine of 13 games on the road, the Jets could only muster nine points and went 4-8-1.
Winnipeg has jumped into a playoff position lately thanks largely to an eight-game home stand that started on Feb. 17 and ends Monday with a game against the Buffalo Sabres. Before that, the Jets had been stuck in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and seemed unable to move up. But Winnipeg has gone 4-1-2 during the current home series, picking up 10 out of a possible 16 points. As of Friday, the Jets had 70 points, two back of Florida for first in the Southeast Division and one point ahead of the Washington Capitals for eighth in the Eastern Conference.
So now what? The Jets have 16 games left; nine away and seven at home. The away dates include matches against the Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Florida as well as three sets of back-to-back games. Winnipeg has not done well in the second game of back-to-backs, winning just one out of 10 this season. The seven home games include tough opponents such as the New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Dallas Stars and Washington.
But the Jets’ main rivals, Washington and Florida, have difficult schedules, too. Both clubs have 19 games remaining with nine games on the road. The Capitals’ list of away games includes dates against the Detroit Red Wings, the Rangers, Boston (twice) and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Panthers also go up against Detroit on the road as well as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (twice).
Noel has tried keep it all in perspective. “We talk in the room about keeping things on an even keel and not getting too down when you lose to Edmonton or when you give up a game to the Islanders that you don’t play that well, and not going through roof because you won 7-0,” he said after the Jets pasted Florida Thursday. “For us it’s a 16-game playoff series almost. So we have to win. … We just have to continue to get points.”