-- The Winnipeg Jets wrap up a three-game road trip tonight in Colorado against the Avalanche, and also look to clinch the first playoff spot for the franchise since 2007, and the first since the team’s relocation to Winnipeg.
The Jets hold down the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference, three points clear of the Los Angeles Kings.
But even with a playoff berth on the line tonight, the Jets remain even keel, as they have all season.
“How we focus won't change. The things we talk about being good today, it's not about winning, it's about playing the game,” Coach Paul Maurice said. “We've been good in our last long stretch of games. We've played pretty hard and pretty well. That's the key to focus. It's the process. Winning the game, what it takes. We've talked about it all year. We know what those things are. Making sure your mind isn't focused on winning, but on playing.”
Sticking to that process has helped the Jets to back-to-back wins to start this three-game road trip. Drew Stafford, who scored the insurance marker in a 2-0 win over Minnesota on Monday, said the key is coming out of the gates quickly.
“We don't plan on changing anything in our game,” he said. “We're going to try and make sure we're focused on a great start and bring that pace and physicality we've been bringing the last few games.”
This season, the Jets have opened the scoring in 49 of their 80 games. That ties them for first in the National Hockey League with the New York Rangers. But Stafford admits those quick starts don’t help much without goaltending.
“It all starts with great goaltending,” he said. “Pretty much everyone doing their part, and we were also on the fortunate side of a couple breaks as well.”
This is when the cliché of not getting too high or too low comes into play. For a player like Bryan Little with over 500 games in the NHL, making the playoffs is important. But he won’t let that stand in the way of the job he and his teammates have to do tonight.
“That's our main challenge right now. We're not thinking about it, we're thinking about winning these next two games,” said Little. “We've been a pretty loose group the whole year and kind of found what works best for us. We stick with that. We've never really been super quiet, super tight, or nervous. We've always been loose and joking around, and it's worked for us. So why not keep it going.”
The Colorado Avalanche, at 37-31-12, are no pushover. They may be eliminated from playoff contention, but are fresh off a 3-2 win over Nashville on Tuesday night.
“They've got six guys with 50 plus points. The risk tolerance and risk profile is slightly different in their game. They have the ability to make those plays,” Maurice said. “Staying off the puck is a danger against a team like that. We've played a bunch of teams like that lately, so that's a positive for us, how tight our gap is. They're going to play hard. They played hard in the Nashville game. They've come off some stiff opponents so their game will be right.”
In the four previous meetings with Colorado this season, the Jets are 3-0-1. Reto Berra, who has a .909 save percentage in 18 appearances this season. The Jets will counter with Ondrej Pavelec, who enters the game with back-to-back shutouts. Winnipeg’s forward lines and defensive pairs remain the same as Tuesday night.
For Stafford, nights like this one are why he plays the game.
“You want to be part of the mix that gets in the hunt for the playoffs. When I got traded here that's what I had in mind. I wanted to contribute and help these guys in any way possible,” Stafford said. “Fortunately things have worked out so far, but we're not in yet. We still have a ways to go, we have a battle ahead of us to get in.”
MAURICE MILESTONE…OR IS IT?
Head Coach Paul Maurice will be behind the bench for his 1,200th game tonight when the Jets take on Colorado. But it wasn’t a number he was thinking much about until last night.
“Pascal Vincent mentioned that last night, and I hadn't even thought about it,” he said. “It just makes me old, more than anything else. It's not a milestone, it's just a game.”
Earlier this season, Maurice became the second youngest coach to reach 500 wins.
Dustin Byfuglien addressed the media following today’s morning skate. He’ll sit out the final game of his four-game suspension tonight.
“It's tough to sit there and watch. It's not fun, no one wants to do it. The boys have played good hockey and I have faith they'll finish it,” Byfuglien said. “It would be huge for us. It's another thing we've been working hard for, and the boys still have to play together.”
Puck drop tonight is 8 pm central time.
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com