If there was any indication that a team wants to make the playoffs, the next ten games should provide insight as to whether they will be buyers or sellers come the trade deadline. Tonight, the Winnipeg Jets came out and laid a beating on the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs as the Jets look to push into a tie for eighth-place in the Eastern Conference with the New York Rangers. The Jets looked focused tonight as they carried the play, outhit and out-hustled the Maple Leafs all night long, and earned a big win in their own barn. If this is any indication, the Jets started the second-half of this shortened season on the right foot.
That's not to say that there weren't areas that the Jets could work on in practice in the upcoming days. Giveaways, defensive breakdowns, and some sloppy neutral zone play are still a concern. However, the Jets made good on a number of shots thrown towards the Toronto net as they chased James Reimer after four goals and put another past Ben Scrivens in relief. Andrew Ladd had another strong game, Blake Wheeler notched a couple of goals, Evander Kane picked up a goal, and Nikolai Antropov had himself a big night with a goal and a pair of helpers. For the man I've been calling Sergei Bautin all season, Antropov played pretty well against his former team.
Perhaps the best game delivered by any player was done by Ondrej Pavelec. For all the talk of the hole over his left shoulder where that glove hand normally stands, he flashed the leather a number of times tonight to rob Leafs of goals. The image above was the save made on Mike Kostka which looked like a sure goal to the glove side had this game been played last week. Instead, Pavelec calmly and confidently put the leather in front of the shot, and the MTS Centre crowd rewarded him with a loud ovation.
Before we put the cart in front of the horse, though, the Jets have some key match-ups coming up that they need to win. These games are critical because of the teams chasing them and the teams that are within striking distance in the Eastern Conference. If the Jets can go 7-3 in these next ten games, they should be in a playoff spot with just under a third of the season to play. Here are the next ten games, and I've taken the liberty at highlighting the games the Jets should be circling on the schedule:
- vs. NY Rangers - After the Rangers dropped their game tonight against Buffalo by a 3-1 score, the Jets have to capitalize on this game on Thursday. This would vault them ahead of the Rangers by two points with the Rangers having a game in-hand. This one is a critical game.
- @ Toronto - A Hockey Night In Canada match against the Leafs should be a good one, and the Jets will need to be ready after tonight's game. This one would also be a must-win simply due to the fact that they need to continue to cut down the teams ahead of them if they want to play in the postseason.
- @ Ottawa - The second-half of the back-to-back sees the Jets take on the still-dangerous Ottawa Senators. With all the injuries that the Senators have, the Jets need to take this game as well. You can't let teams decimated by injuries earn points against you.
- vs. Boston - This game will be tough as Boston and Winnipeg always have close games with a lot of physicality. Boston is a great team, so the goal should be to grab a point off the Bruins at least.
- vs. Washington - I'm not going to lie when I say I hate Washington because they raise their game against the Jets. In a weird scheduling quirk, the Capitals and Jets will play back-to-back in Winnipeg. That's a recipe for four big points, and it starts with a win in the first game.
- vs. Washington - Wash, rinse, repeat. Beating divisional foes is good for everyone.
- vs. Tampa Bay - The Lightning always bring a good effort to Winnipeg, so the Jets shouldn't be complacent. The Lightning are right on Winnipeg's heels, so the Jets would be wise to put some distance between them and TeeBay.
- @ Carolina - This the team that Winnipeg is chasing for the division lead. Mark this one down as a must-win for the Jets. Unless, of course, they've gone 0-7 before that.
- @ Pittsburgh - Like the Boston game, this one will be tough. Pittsburgh seems to carve up the Jets when playing in Pittsburgh. Again, aim for a point at least.
- vs. Carolina - If the Jets can come out this one by going 7-3, I'd say this ten-game run was pretty successful. 14 points would go a long way in establishing the Jets as a playoff team.
Only Washington and Tampa Bay aren't in a playoff spot in terms of the next ten games, and the Jets can put a dent in the playoff hopes of both of those teams quite nicely. Beating the Rangers is important in hurting their chances as well, and the rest of the schedule is all about proving they can beat playoff teams. This should be an exciting time for the city of Winnipeg if the Jets can play as well as they did in their 5-2 win over the Leafs tonight.
All the Jets have to do is work harder than their opponents. It seems simple, but these next ten games will tell a lot about whether Winnipeg is a legitimate playoff team or an also-ran.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!