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Jets try to hold fragile division lead despite lack of playoff-hardened players

Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec keeps his eye on the puck against the New York Rangers in third period action during their NHL game at Madison Square Garden in New York, April 1, 2013.


It can be hard to find the destination when you're unfamiliar with the territory.

Which might explain why the Winnipeg Jets have wandered off the map on their way to the post-season.

Yes, the Jets have some playoff-hardened players in Stanley Cup champs Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, but more than 15 members of the current roster, including veterans like defenceman Ron Hainsey, forward Bryan Little and goalie Ondrej Pavelec, have yet to play a post-season game in the NHL.

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It's something they badly want to address.

"In the NHL, I haven't made the playoffs yet, I don't like losing, especially not making the playoffs and even giving yourself a chance. It's something I really want to be part of and I know a lot of the guys in the room feel the same way," said winger Evander Kane. "We need to show that."

They do indeed, having played more games than any other team in the NHL.

Including Thursday night's game against the Northeast-leading Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre, the Jets have 10 games left in the season to consolidate their hold on a fragile lead in the Southeast.

Because of the relative weakness of their division, the Jets face an unsavoury prospect: either they hold off the fast-moving Washington Capitals – and the still-lurking Carolina Hurricanes –and earn a home seed, of they finish out of the playoffs.

Winnipeg has a two-point cushion on the Capitals, who have two games in hand, and are four up on the struggling Canes, who have played three fewer games.

A bad time, then, for a four-game losing streak (the Jets are 2-6 since Mar. 21, when they lost the first of two straight to the Caps).

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The good news for the Jets is they'll play six in a row at home starting on Saturday, and just two games on the road the rest of the way.

That includes one head-to-head confrontation with the Hurricanes on Apr. 18, and one against the Caps in Washington in the second-last game of the season on Apr. 23.

Much is said at this stage of the season about the need to step up the intensity and to find a new level, but what does that actually mean?

For defenceman Zach Bogosian, another of the playoff-starved players, it's a question of focus and consistency.

"You play the game that's in front of you. Every hockey game isn't going to be the same . . . we have to go through this as a group, you can't just have one or two lines going," he said.

Such has not been the case in recent games.

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Ladd, the team captain, has gone pointless in five games, as has linemate Bryan Little. Winger Blake Wheeler has just two assists to show for the nine games since he scored a pair against Boston, his former team, centre Alex Burmistrov has slumped to one point in his last 15 games and has slid down the pecking order.

Prior to the Habs tilt, Jets coach Claude Noel was asked for his evaluation of how his charges have handled the mental strain of the white-knuckle ride that is the last couple of weeks.

"It's not only the losses, it's not so much the pressure – that certainly has something to do with it . . . but obviously the results have been there and that's added to the pressure and the frustrations. That's something that we have to overcome, but that's what we're trying to do, that's growth in your team," he said. "When you play in the playoffs under a lot of pressure and you play a long time in the playoffs, that's an experience that we don't have. It's something we're trying to work through and trying to battle through. We haven't handled it as well as we had hoped, let's put it that way . . . but adversity makes you stronger and we're dealing with that stuff."

The question is whether enough strength can be accrued to make it to the checkered flag first.

Statistical forecasters suggest the Jets have a 32.2 per cent chance of making the playoffs, while Washington's chances are 48.2 per cent and Carolina's are 22.6 per cent.

Those odds won't matter if they can string together a few victories.

The challenge begins in Montreal.

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