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Jets battling adversity to stay in hunt for playoff spot

Tied for first wild card in West despite injuries, revamped group of defensemen

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets have remained in the race for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by latching onto one idea since the start of training camp: Staying in the fight.

Despite a revamped defenseman group and injury issues throughout the season, the Jets (34-28-6) are tied with the Vancouver Canucks for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference following their 3-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.

"We have one of the youngest teams in the League, and there have been some points in the season where (normally) ... there would be some hard meetings and hard practices, [but] we just don't have the ability to do that," said captain Blake Wheeler, who has 61 points (21 goals, 40 assists) in 68 games this season. "So I think we've done a really good job of trying to teach and trying to get the most out of everyone and trying to empower as many guys as we can so that we've got a lineup full of guys that feel they're involved in the game and involved in us pushing for a playoff spot.

"I don't think I can count the easy days on one hand because there haven't been any. There haven't been any lollipops [and sunshine]. It's been a really challenging year for a lot of different reasons."

After Winnipeg qualified for the postseason in each of the past two seasons, including reaching the Western Conference Final in 2018, its chances seemed to take a hit in the offseason when three of its top five defensemen left, with Jacob Trouba being traded to the New York Rangers, and Tyler Myers (Canucks) and Ben Chiarot (Montreal Canadiens) signing elsewhere as free agents. Then, on Sept. 13, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien asked for and was granted a leave of absence before training camp. He hasn't played this season.

Once the season began, the odds grew larger, with Winnipeg losing 307 man-games to injury (not including Byfuglien) through Tuesday.

Belief has remained, Wheeler said.

"We haven't turned our backs on each other," he said. "We haven't pointed fingers. Even after the stretch where we were losing a lot of games, we just keep having beers together, doing things together, staying in it together, and ultimately that builds some equity at the end of the season when it's hardest."

The Jets dropped out of playoff position when they lost five in a row from Jan. 17-31, but they've gone 9-5-2 since Feb. 1, allowing 2.25 goals per game. 

Instead of having a high-profile group of defensemen making frequent highlight-reel plays, the Jets have become more workmanlike out of necessity, defenseman Josh Morrissey said.

"As a function of some of our injury problems and obviously some changes to our blue line, we've had to battle for every inch we've gotten," said Morrissey, who has 29 points (five goals, 24 assists) in 62 games. "Nothing's been given to us. In past years maybe we could sort of win some nights just off our skill. We still have a ton of skill in our room, but that's just not the way you play if you want to win games.

"Perhaps a good lesson for a pretty young group."

Winnipeg will need those lessons for its 14 remaining games, six of them at home and 13 against Western Conference rivals. The next is against the Pacific Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights at Bell MTS Place on Friday (8 p.m. ET; TSN3, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV).

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"It's a little bit different team than last year," said forward Patrik Laine, who has 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 65 games. "With the guys we have here and with all the injuries we have, we've tried to grow more as a team, and it's definitely something that's kept us in the fight.

"We've played [like it's] the playoffs for the last couple of weeks at least and it's not going to get any easier. All the other teams above the line are winning, too. So just try to grind it and hopefully make it, but it won't be easy."

One key for the Jets is that players are starting to return from injuries.

Morrissey and Laine returned to the lineup Tuesday. Morrissey missed four games with an upper-body injury, and Laine missed one game after blocking a shot against the Washington Capitals on Thursday.

Forward Mathieu Perreault may play Friday after missing 16 games because of an upper-body injury. Forward Adam Lowry, Winnipeg's key checking center, may also return in the next week; he has missed 19 games with an upper-body injury.

Veteran center Mark Letestu, who played the first seven games of the season but then was shut down after a myocarditis diagnosis, has resumed skating, but the timetable for his return is unknown. Defensemen Luca Sbisa, who has missed eight games with an upper-body injury, and Sami Niku, who has missed four games with a lower-body injury, remain out and are not skating.

Center Bryan Little has missed all but seven games because of two head injuries and surgery to repair a punctured ear drum. He will not return this season, nor willl Byfuglien.

But having overcome the adversity this long, the Jets are driven by the possibility of reaching the postseason, Wheeler said.

"It's right there for us," he said. "There's a lot of excitement in our room about having an opportunity. We have a lot to play for."

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