NEW YORK -- In a season in which the Southeast Division is ripe for the taking, the Winnipeg Jets have been trying to give it away over the past week.
The trend continued Monday at Madison Square Garden. Staked to an early lead, the Jets faltered on the power play and watched a 2-1 lead against the New York Rangers turn into a 4-2 loss, their third in a row and sixth in the past nine games.
Even with that extended slide, the Jets were in control of the division after a 4-1 road victory against the Carolina Hurricanes last Tuesday. The Jets held a six-point lead on the Hurricanes, who had played three fewer games at the time, but that lead has become more precarious after losing to the Rangers.
The Florida Panthers won the Southeast last season with 94 points, six fewer than any division winner. This season, the Jets' 38 points would have them trailing every other division leader but one by at least 13 points.
The Jets have played 37 games, most in the Eastern Conference, and will play No. 38 against the surging New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday. Their lead in the Southeast is down to four points against the Hurricanes, who still have three games in hand, and the Washington Capitals, who have two games in hand.
"We have to stop it. We lost three in a row," said goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who made 31 saves Monday in a game where the Jets were overwhelmed by the Rangers' forechecking. "We have to stop it right now … because we're going to be in trouble. It's not going to be easy, but we have to find a way."
A positive for the Jets is they play seven of their final nine games at MTS Centre, but with the Eastern Conference packed so tightly, there are no easy games on the schedule the rest of the way, outside possibly of one contest with the 30th-place Panthers.
But if the Jets continue to play like they have in their past three games, in which they have scored a total of three goals, those late-season games may not matter.
"Every team is feeling that they still got a chance to get in the playoffs," Jets center Olli Jokinen said. "For us now as a team, we have to make decisions if we want to be there or not. We've got 11 games to go. We still control our own fate. At the same time, we can't wait for the last five games to make a push. We have to find a way to win [Tuesday]. It's a huge game.”
Coach Claude Noel echoed the notion that the Jets control their destiny, but that's not the case in terms of winning the division. In the unlikely scenario of the Jets winning their final 11 games, the Hurricanes would win the division should they finish 13-1-0 and lose their one remaining game against the Jets. With two games remaining against the Islanders, the Jets still have their say, however, in finishing in the top eight.
But that will be unlikely if the Jets fail to receive more production from their top line.
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Wheeler had five of the line's eight shots, but if they don't finish those chances, Noel knows it will make life difficult on everyone else.
"The Ladd, Little and Wheeler line hasn't scored in four games," Noel said. "[If we] get production from them, that might put you on the right side of the game. But it's not like they're not trying. They're getting a lot of attention and that doesn't leave you scoring a lot of goals past that. We've scored zero, we've scored one and now we've scored two. You can look at things however you want, but that puts more stress on the power play.
"Those aren't excuses, it's just real. So you've got to get production someplace else or you have to defend a lot better."
Ladd, the team's captain, put it on his line to be better starting Tuesday against the Islanders.
"For our sake, our line has to be better," Ladd said. "We haven't produced these last four to five games. For me, that's probably been the difference. We have to be better and we'll make sure we are [Tuesday]."
Against the Rangers, the game turned early in the second period when the Jets had a 5-on-3 power play for 39 seconds. The Rangers were able to win the initial faceoff and clear the zone, but the Jets regrouped and had about 20 seconds of offensive-zone time in which they failed to generate a shot.
Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh intercepted an ill-advised pass by Wheeler and cleared the zone. The puck bounced to the stick of Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who led a 2-on-1 rush with Mats Zuccarello, who had just stepped out of the penalty box, to score a beauty of goal that tied the game.
With an 0-for-5 showing against the Rangers, the Jets' power play is 0-for-12 during the three-game slide.
The Southeast lead isn't out of the Jets' grasp just yet, but it's starting to leak through their fingers. However, Jokinen still believes the Jets are going to be a playoff team.
"Absolutely," he said. "We've been there in the top eight most of the year. There's been a lot of highs and lows during the season. Right now, we're going through some tough stretches. We have to get back to what we were doing a week ago and we'll be fine. We had a good stretch there of 10 to 15 games where we were playing really well.
"At the same time, we need every player to step it up. This time of the year, you have to raise your game, raise your level, because competition gets harder and harder. You start running out of games. Every team is in the same situation as we are. So you have to bear down and stick with the plan for 60 minutes, and we'll be fine. We’ll figure this out and try to get two points [Tuesday]."