Now those same fans will have an opportunity to experience the day-to-day rollercoaster that is an NHL playoff race. With a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, their Jets (30-26-7) not only rejoined the top-eight playoff mix, but also finally took over first place in the Southeast Division and third place in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season.
"We should be excited," Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien said of his club that holds a one-point edge on the Florida Panthers. "It's a lot of fun to be in the playoffs. We should come to the rink everyday with smiles on our faces and be ready to go to work."
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"We understand that there is a long way to go and that there are teams that have got games in hand on us," captain Andrew Ladd said. "We've got to keep winning. At the end of the day, we'll be happy at the end of the season when we're above the line. It will be gratifying then."
Coach Claude Noel and his club have survived a 4-6-1 opening month that threatened to derail their first season in the Manitoba capital city before it had ever really started. The Jets then stabilized in November and assembled a franchise record monthly mark of 10-3-1 in December to move as high as sixth place in the Eastern Conference as the 2012 calendar year began.
But a 4-8-1 mark in January left the Jets' playoff hopes frayed, and it seemed that the club's fairy-tale first season in Winnipeg would not include a playoff berth. Speculation started to zero in on whether the Jets would sell off assets at the NHL trade deadline and begin retooling for next season.
Goaltending has been the Jets' one consistent pillar all season. Ondrej Pavelec has blossomed into one of the higher-end young goaltenders in the League, enduring a heavy workload in which he has had to help the Jets pull out several wins this season in games in which they were outplayed significantly.
An improbable come-from-behind shootout win at Washington on Feb. 9 also began to reverse the Jets' fortunes. An 8-5 loss Pittsburgh two days later proved to be a blessing, however. Putting five goals past Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury apparently triggered a scoring touch that the Jets had never realized they had.
Winnipeg went on to take wins from the likes of Minnesota, Boston, Colorado and Tampa Bay, all clubs in the playoff mix or still hovering in contention. Winnipeg also put up four goals against Philadelphia in an overtime loss earlier this week and managed a point thanks to Pavelec's 50-save performance against the high-powered Flyers offense.
Now the Jets are discovering an offensive touch of their own and were nearly able to match the Flyers goal-for-goal in the sort of run-and-gun game that has not been their forte. In all, the Jets have averaged 2.56 goals per game this season. But on their current 4-0-1 streak, which ties the Jets' longest unbeaten streak of the season, the team has rolled up 4.2 goals per game.
GAA: 2.78 | SVP: 0.911
But the Jets then spun off seven consecutive power-play goals, including a 3-for-3 effort against the Flyers, before finally seeing the Lightning end their streak late in Thursday's win.
"We weren't very good for a long time," Blake Wheeler said. "I think that the hockey gods ignored for us a little while and [now] they noticed us."
On Thursday, Ladd became the second Jet to cross the 20-goal threshold this season and owns a four-game points streak, as does his center, Bryan Little. Byfuglien, Wheeler and Evander Kane all hold five-game points streaks.
"We do have more net presence, which is better," Noel said of his power play. "I think the guys were sick and tired of being sick and tired of either listening to people talk about it, having a lack of success or being on the wrong side of games."
Jets fans may worry that the club will coast on its first-place divisional standing. But a last-minute Tampa Bay rally helped snap the Jets to attention, and a visit from the St. Louis Blues on Saturday afternoon will be another stiff test.
"I think we're aware of where we've come from," Wheeler said, "and what it's going to take to continue this. We can't sit back and take a photo and say, 'Hey, we're all set.' It's going to take this kind of hockey for the next 19 games to make the playoffs."