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Montreal Canadiens right wing Joel Armia (40) skates towards Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (5) in the first period at Bell MTS Place.James Carey Lauder/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

The Winnipeg Jets’ efforts to make the top three spots in the Central Division a race to the finish bring to mind another Canadian NHL team – the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As the final week of the league’s regular season approached, it was the Maple Leafs’ enduring incompetence that drew most of the headlines. But now it is the Jets, looking home and cooled out two weeks ago in first place in the Central with a playoff spot in the bag, who have to find their game over the last four games of the regular season. The Jets let both the Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues catch them in what has become a sprint to the finish line.

In the only other playoff race, the Montreal Canadiens are one of three teams chasing the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots. While the Habs easily dumped the Jets 3-1 on Saturday night, it is the Columbus Blue Jackets who are firing on all cylinders in that race, which means the Canadiens will have to wrest the other wild-card slot from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Before Sunday’s games, the Canadiens were on the outside with 92 points in 79 games. They also had the fewest non-shootout wins of the three teams with 40, which is the first tiebreaker in the standing. The Blue Jackets, who were tied with the Canadiens in points at 92 before Sunday’s games but held a game in hand, had 43 non-shootout wins. The Hurricanes had 93 points and 41 non-shootout wins.

Over in the Central Division, the Jets recent stumbles have them hanging on to first place by a fingernail. They are tied with the Predators at 94 points, but remain in the lead thanks to a game in hand at 78. The third-place St. Louis Blues also have a game in hand on the Predators and sit two points behind them with 92. The Jets also have the most non-shootout wins of the three teams with 43.

However, what the Jets don’t have is the slightest sign of momentum heading into the postseason. Their loss to the Canadiens was the Jets’ third in a row and they are 5-5-0 in their past 10 games. Jets forward Mathieu Perreault made an admission to reporters after the Montreal game that did not do anything to reassure Jets fans that matters are under control.

“Ever since we’ve clinched [a playoff spot], it seems like we’re taking it a little bit more lightly, which we shouldn’t,” Perreault said. “I don’t really know how to explain that, it’s just maybe human nature. You know, you feel maybe a bit more comfortable knowing you are going to make the playoffs, so you don’t have to try as hard.

“I’m sure when playoffs come around, we’ll get back to our game. If we win out, we finish first in our division, so we still control our fate. Just go out and do it.”

Based on the schedule, none of the three Central contenders have a clear advantage, although both the Jets and Blues had four games left as of Monday while the Predators have three. The Blues are the hottest team of the group by a mile, pulling themselves out of last place over all back in January. They are also 6-3-1 in their past 10 games.

The Jets are on the road for all four of those games, finishing up against the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes. Only Colorado is in a playoff position.

But the Predators and Blues also get a diet of likely also-rans. The Predators will meet the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks and the Blackhawks. The Blues will play the Avalanche, Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers and the Canucks.

The stakes are high in the Central race since all three teams are strong, which means only one could be standing by the end of the second round of the playoffs. If the Jets can hang on to first place, the reward is playing the first round against the second wild-card team and eighth seed in the Western Conference, likely the Dallas Stars.

But Jets head coach Paul Maurice noted his team needs to find playoff-style energy right away. The Jets play back-to-back road games on Monday and Tuesday against Chicago and Minnesota.

“Our leg drive,” Maurice said of what’s missing. “We look slow at times, especially on decisions and moving the puck. That’s the area of concern for us. Our fast players don’t look particularly fast right now and we’ve got to find that energy.”

Like the Leafs, who have yet to win a playoff series in two tries in their current configuration, the Jets are burdened with big expectations. Winnipeg went to the conference final last season after knocking off the Predators in the second round. But given the strength of the Preds and Blues, getting out of the second round again is no certainty.

However, unlike the Leafs, the Jets are getting superior work from their goaltender right now. Connor Hellebuyck has two shutouts in the past 11 nights and made 41 saves in Saturday’s loss to the Canadiens.

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