Jets coming to grips that playoffs no longer realistic
WINNIPEG -- Sun, record-breaking high temperatures and dreams of the Stanley Cup Playoffs enveloped Winnipeg 10 days ago.
But the Jets and their fans only had a cold, damp rain and dashed hopes for spring hockey when they wiped away the sleep from their eyes following Monday's 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
"Today is a hard day for the players and the staff, too," Jets coach Claude Noel said as the club gathered at the MTS Centre for an optional practice 12 hours after the loss to Ottawa.
Back-to-back wins against Dallas and Washington had pulled the Winnipeg Jets to within two points of the Eastern Conference's eighth slot on March 17. But a sloppy home loss to Carolina the following night began the club's fall out of playoff contention. A 1-2-0 road trip followed before the loss to Ottawa that left the Jets a frustrated bunch as the last vestiges of postseason aspirations departed Winnipeg.
"After this one, we can't expect to make the playoffs," goaltender Ondrej Pavelec said after the loss in comparing the wide-open game to "summer hockey."
Indeed, the loss unofficially ended the Jets' bid to break into the Eastern Conference top eight. After Tuesday night's Buffalo-Washington game, the Jets will be eight points out of eighth place with six games remaining. Two home dates remain before the city's first season back in the NHL fraternity closes, the MTS Centre ice melts, and the club's players scatter across the globe. The Jets have several pending free agents, and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will have his first full offseason to begin shaping the Winnipeg roster as he sees fit.
"It's heartbreaking, almost," Jets leading scorer Blake Wheeler said.
"The one thing that we really have done is put it all on the line," Wheeler said of a postseason push that has endured for weeks and peaked when the Jets took the Southeast Division lead briefly in late February. "We've played our hearts out for the last few games, and it seems like no matter what we do, it just hasn't gone our way. Sometimes that is the way it works."
The loss to Ottawa mirrored many of the losses that the Jets have rolled up this season. Winnipeg fell into an early hole, battled back from three separate deficits and then suffered multiple late-game breakdowns. And as has often been the Jets' tendency this season, they allowed the Senators to dictate the game's pace. The Jets found themselves in a high-tempo game against an opponent possessing far more offensive firepower.
The Jets will begin to wind down their season later this week when they undertake a four-game road trip after Wednesday's visit from the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers. The four-game trip will again force the Jets to confront the road demons that doomed their season. The Jets' 12 road wins surpass only the totals assembled this season by Carolina and Columbus.
The Winnipeg franchise will now miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. Other than a postseason appearance in 2007 when the franchise was based in Atlanta, the organization has not made the playoffs in 11 of its 12 seasons. However, with six more points this season, the club could reach its third-highest point total in franchise history. The lure of a strong finish and professional pride are the two remaining angles for the Winnipeg dressing room to target.
"No matter if you're in a playoff spot or not," Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian said, "you're playing in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people, and you don't want to get embarrassed. Whether you're in a position to be in the playoffs or not, you still have to come out hard."
If the Jets somehow find it difficult to muster emotion to close out their season, Noel has plenty of objectives in mind before April 7 when the Jets host Tampa Bay in their season finale.
"We're in the business of winning, playing well, building a better foundation than we have, defending better, continually improving -- there is a whole lot of them," Noel said, "and they're not going away. And I'm not going to let them go away."
However, Noel expects that his club will not need any prodding.
"Players have pride," Noel said. "They have competed for their whole lives. I don't see motivation as an issue. Tomorrow is another day. We're going to plow ahead."