WINNIPEG -- When the Winnipeg Jets last hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year's Eve, they held a grip on spot among the Eastern Conference's top eight clubs.
However, since the Jets (24-24-6) closed out December with a 10-3-1 run, the best month in franchise history, Winnipeg's playoff aspirations have taken several blows. The Jets managed just four wins in 13 outings in January, and have begun February with two losses in three games, including 3-0 to the Montreal Canadiens this past weekend. The Jets scored just five goals during a six-game road trip that just concluded, and have had to rely on goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason even more heavily than usual.
"Right now, there is a small margin for error," coach Claude Noel said. "There is not much room for mistakes in our game. When you put that kind of stress on [yourself], it wears on you."
Now the Jets return to Winnipeg for a one-game pit stop against the Maple Leafs before heading back to the East Coast for road meetings with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Two points against the Maple Leafs tonight is crucial for the Jets.
The eighth-place Ottawa Senators are seven points ahead of the Jets, while the Leafs are eight points ahead. Capturing the Southeast Division might be the Jets' best hope, but Winnipeg now sits five points behind the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, who play at Washington tonight. The Florida-Washington head-to-head matchup means that the Southeast Division leader will own at least 60 points after tonight.
Winnipeg received some good news that leading goal scorer Evander Kane should return to the lineup after a concussion led to a seven-game absence. Kane is expected to skate on the left side of a line with Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood.
"Sometimes when you're out it enables you to reflect and bring some enthusiasm to the game," Noel said. "I think he will be enthusiastic about playing and being back with his teammates again. He will be a welcome addition to us."
Tim Stapleton will miss his eight straight game due to injury, but his return is expected to be soon.
Pavelec will start in net.
Here are the projected lines and pairings for Winnipeg:
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane - Nik Antropov - Kyle Wellwood
Tanner Glass - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
Antti Miettinen - Aaron Gagnon - Alexander Burmistrov
Tobias Enstrom - Dustin Byfuglien
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Johnny Oduya - Mark Stuart