Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Party's Over

The image to the left should pretty much tell you that the euphoria surrounding a playoff appearance by the Winnipeg Jets is now over. There's no denying that it was a pretty good run for Jets in the last few weeks, but some key losses down the stretch put the writing on the wall for this day to come. Had the Jets even taken half the points they left on the table, the race between Washington and Buffalo may have been about which team had the better chance of catching the Jets instead of the Jets needing to close out the season with nothing but wins and requiring a pile of help for them to make the playoffs. But, as Tennyson wrote, "'Tis better to have loved and lost/than never to have loved at all".

We look back to February 27 when the Jets were right in the mix of things as the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference. A 4-0-2 run, including a big win over Boston and a decisive victory over Colorado, had the Jets looking very good for the stretch run towards the playoffs. A recent shootout loss to the impressive St. Louis Blues - a game in which the Jets were neither outplayed nor outhustled - looked to set the table for the Jets to roll over the Edmonton Oilers two days later.

Everyone but Edmonton got the message as the Oilers came into Winnipeg and dropped a 5-3 loss on the Jets. The Jets led 2-1 at the end of two periods, but four goals in the third for the Oilers allowed one of the Western Conference's also-rans a free pass through Winnipeg. The Jets looked lost in the third period as they got caught on a number of odd-man rushes and gave up two clear breakaways to the young Oiler snipers. In the loss, the Jets gave up two points they should have had considering the way the previous six games had played out.

"We looked like we were emotionally drained, physically drained and we didn't have much energy - and why is that?" Claude Noel asked after the game. "Is it the level of the games we've played and the pressure of winning at home and trying to get points? Those things take their toll."

Winning games against teams that are behind you in the standings are a must when pushing for a playoff spot. March 18 was a great opportunity to derail the Carolina Hurricanes' charge up the standings while improving the Jets' standing. After a 4-2-0 run in which the Jets beat Florida, Buffalo, Dallas, and Washington, it appeared that the good run displayed by Winnipeg could be furthered in a game against the Hurricanes.

Much like the Edmonton game a few weeks earlier, the Jets set themselves up well in the first forty minutes as they had built a 3-2 lead. A breakaway to Eric Staal and a late goal by Chad Larose were the only two goals scored in the final frame, and the Jets found themselves on the wrong side of a 4-3 score. Again, odd-man rushes and defensive breakdowns contributed to this loss after the Jets had every opportunity to skate away with two points. Instead, the Jets gave up another two points they desperately needed in the playoff race.

"The problem was, you couldn't stop the bleeding, and that's really sad. It's sad because we came so far and to do this to each other, to disrespect each other like this was silly," a clearly frustrated Claude Noel said in his post-game press conference. "This one will stick in there for a long time. The bottom line is, if we don't make the playoffs, we don't deserve to make the playoffs."

The third game I'd like to identify as a game that the Jets absolutely needed to win was on March 26 when the Ottawa Senators played the Jets. Ottawa, entrenched in seventh-place, was once a team that Winnipeg was battling with for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After beating Washington and playing well against both Nashville and the New York Rangers, there was hope that the Jets could grab a couple of needed points against the Senators.

The running theme of this article is that the Jets were in a great position after two periods of play, and this paragraph is no different as the Jets and Senators found themselves knotted up at 3-3 after forty minutes. Alfredsson put the Senators ahead before Evander Kane tied it up, but Alfredsson put the Senators up 5-4 just 24 seconds later with 2:33 to play. The Jets would not recover as the Senators downed Winnipeg by a 6-4 score. Again, the Jets had opportunities to end this game early in the third period - a failed Kyle Wellwood penalty shot and multiple scoring chances that went unconverted - but couldn't get the job done. A couple of key mistakes by the Jets gave Ottawa the chances they needed, and the curtain fell on the Jets in this game.

"We had it," Jim Slater said in a post-game interview. "We tied it up. It was a great effort crashing the net then they came back and were able to put the game-winner in under two minutes. It happened to us twice tonight late in the period and it came back to beat us."

Perhaps lost in the great atmosphere of the MTS Centre, and the amazing record that the Jets had at home, was that all three of these key losses were at MTS Centre. For as much as everyone said that there was a home-ice advantage for the Jets - admittedly true in some cases - the advatange was nil when the chips were on the table and the Jets were needing a win. The Jets failed three times against teams that were either directly ahead of them in the playoff race or behind them in the standings. That's not how you earn a playoff spot.

Perhaps Claude Noel was right when he said, "The bottom line is, if we don't make the playoffs, we don't deserve to make the playoffs." The Jets didn't earn wins they desperately needed, so maybe they never deserved to be in the talk about a playoff spot. The run was great, and there's no denying that this season has been an absolute success both on and off the ice for True North Sports and Entertainment. If anyone looks at this season and can find any fault with the Jets, it might simply be that they didn't deserve to make the playoffs.

In the end, it needs to be said that the fat lady was singing long before the team arrived in Tampa Bay tonight.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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