The Jets, ninth in the Eastern Conference, must defeat the Canadiens in their regular-season finale -- ideally in regulation, from a Winnipeg standpoint -- and hope that the seventh-place Ottawa Senators or the eighth-place New York Rangers do not win any of their remaining games.
"We know what we've got to do," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "We need these two points to give ourselves a chance."
The Jets made a spot in the playoffs its preseason goal. The organization has reached the postseason once in its history, in 2007 when the franchise was located in Atlanta.
Winnipeg has 51 points, and the Senators and Rangers have 52. Ottawa has three games remaining: at the Washington Capitals on Thursday, the Philadelphia Flyers at home on Saturday and at the Boston Bruins on Sunday. The Rangers have two games remaining: Thursday at the Carolina Hurricanes and Saturday at home against the New Jersey Devils.
Unlike the Rangers and Senators, the Jets were flirting with a pair of playoff paths as recently as Tuesday. However, a 5-3 road loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday sealed off one road to the postseason as it allowed the Capitals to clinch the Southeast Division. Now the Jets' only option is to hope they can shove aside the Senators or Rangers.
For Winnipeg, a 6-1-1 run, including a six-game homestand in which it collected 11 of a possible 12 points, may not be sufficient to save a franchise trying to reach its postseason goal. Winnipeg's predicament has left the Jets with their playoff fate out of their hands and facing a Montreal club trying to ready itself for its own trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I think we focus on the game first," Ladd said when asked about the team's approach Thursday. "I'm sure we'll check it out after we're done, but our main focus is coming up with two points, because if we don't do that, everything else is kind of irrelevant."
Home-ice play bedeviled the Jets for much of the regular season until their recent homestand. Jets coach Claude Noel said he expects his club to be prepared and quick to start against the Canadiens, a club that has beaten Winnipeg in both previous meetings this season.
"I think we know the situation," Noel said. "There really is only one option -- win the game. I think we'll be ready to go. I'd be surprised if we wouldn't, let's put it that way."
Another pressure-packed game should feel like the norm for the Jets. A five-game losing streak that began in late March and crossed into April nearly derailed their postseason aspirations. Their successful homestand helped preserve their playoff chances until the final game of the regular season, but the Jets have faced a must-win situation every game since that homestand began April 6.
"It's become the norm, pretty much," Noel said.
Noel said he does not plan to alter his approach, despite the game's significance.
"I won't be taking the pom-poms out," he said. "What do you need to say? I don't think you need to say anything. We'll prepare the same way we do every game. It's another game. We've got to win the game."
If the Jets win while the Rangers and Senators lose Thursday, the Jets face a scenario in which they potentially would need to wait until Sunday evening to learn their fate. In that case, the Jets do not plan to practice Friday, but would regroup Saturday if they remain in contention.
"I guess we'll see where we sit when the regular season is over," Ladd said. "Anything but the playoffs is failure, to me."
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