Tuesday, 23 April 2013

One Game For A Season

This is probably as friendly as these two teams will be tonight. The Washington Capitals sit one point ahead of the Winnipeg Jets with a game in-hand as they cling to the Southeast Division lead and the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Jets will visit the Capitals tonight with two points and, quite possibly, the Jets' playoff hopes on the line. If the Jets win, there's an excellent chance they will make the playoffs. Lose, and they'll need a lot of help with one game to play. If you wanted drama in a game, tonight's Jets-Capitals affair will provide all you need.

If we look back, this game didn't have to be the lynchpin on the Jets' season. The Jets could have squashed Washington with back-to-back wins at home in March, but the Jets went out and got bombed 10-1 in those games. Cue the Washington rally after they won those two games in convincing fashion as they rattled off eight straight wins and have gone 13-2-1 since those two big wins on the road. That allowed Washington to go from 13th in the Eastern Conference to third-place. Suddenly, the Jets have no one but themselves to blame for allowing the Capitals back into the race, let alone taking the Southeast Division lead. There were still points on the table, but you never want to be chasing teams in a playoff race.

However, the table has been set as the Jets look to topple the Capitals tonight in their efforts to earn a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. This will probably one of the toughest games on the schedule considering how well the Capitals are playing and how poorly the Jets played last night in Buffalo. They got the important two points off the Sabres, but the game was anything but complete. The Jets will need to be much better tonight.

The Jets will also be down another body tonight. With no Zach Bogosian and no Olli Jokinen, the Jets' lineup appears to be a lot of smoke and mirrors held together with duct tape and crazy glue right now. They're finding ways to win, but bodies are dropping. Kyle Wellwood, who has seen his ice-time increase with Jokinen's injury, blocked a shot with his hand and was in considerable pain last night. After the game, head coach Claude Noel told reporters, "Kyle Wellwood will be out long-term with an injured hand."

Add another body to the injured list.

Teams are always looking to prevent injuries at this time of year so they can be locked and loaded for the playoffs. Losing Wellwood, who had looked more and more comfortable playing with Evander Kane, doesn't help the Jets whatsoever. He's been going to the net, burying rebounds, and opting to shoot with great results. Being weak down the middle, the Jets didn't need another veteran centerman to fall.

The good news, though, is that both Nik Antropov and Anthony Peluso appear to be ready to return. If I'm a betting man, I'd suspect that Antropov will replace Wellwood in the lineup. Wellwood's not the fastest player by any means, so swapping his fleet-of-foot out for the turtle-like skating of Antropov is a wash. Where the Jets may benefit is having Antropov's larger body in front of the net. Antropov also has a pretty decent shot if and when he's actually in position to use it. Losing Wellwood hurts, but gaining Antropov back should even out the loss.

While finishing as the third-seed in the Eastern Conference would be a huge boost for the Jets, any points tonight are extremely valuable. The Ottawa Senators, the New York Rangers, and the New York Islanders are all within two points of the Jets, and catching any of them would push Winnipeg into a playoff spot. The Jets hold the tie-breaker of regulation and overtime wins (ROW) over all three teams, so continuing to earn points is vital for the Jets and their playoff aspirations. Especially if you consider that all three teams hold one game in-hand over the Jets as well. Win, and the pressure is on everyone else to win. Lose, and things become grim.

The Capitals, on the other hand, come in as one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now, and are looking to book themselves into the playoffs as the third seed with a win. Home-ice advantage through at least the opening round is always nice to have, and Washington can book those dates tonight with a win.

Expect Braden Holtby to start as his recent success against the Jets - three wins with only one goal surrendered - would make that choice a no-brainer. Look for head coach Adam Oates to exploit a Bogosian-less Jets defence by rolling Alexander Ovechkin out against Byfuglien-Meech a lot. Expect to see a lot of Washington's pair of Erskine and Carlson against the Little-Ladd-Wheeler line as they have had incredible shutdown success against the Jets' top line.

The cards are stacked against the Jets in tonight's game due to injuries, their lack of scoring punch beyond their top line, and an unfavorable match-up with one of the NHL's hottest teams. But, as the adage goes, you have to beat the best to be the best, and this test for the Jets tonight will determine if they are a playoff team or a playoff also-ran. If there was a time to play playoff hockey for the Jets, their playoffs start tonight with a Game Seven-type game.

Win and you're most likely in. Lose and you're done. It's that simple for the Jets. Lose, and this whole season was nothing more than an academic exercise with a couple of math problems thrown in for good measure.

No one really likes academic exercises in futility.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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