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As of right now, it's playoffs or bust

Noel knew it all along -- this team is for-real good, should make post-season

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Claude Noel hasn't been through the stultifying media training lots of professional sports franchises run their people through so he's not yet an automaton incapable of speaking his mind.

Sometimes it gets the Winnipeg Jets coach in trouble and sometimes it's funny, but what it almost always serves to do is let us in on what he's really thinking.

Management often likes to keep the team's goals and expectations under the radar, but Noel is unafraid to put them on the table for all to see.

Risky business, perhaps, but it also puts the onus on the players to play up to the expectations set down by the coach.

Noel has been unflinching in his belief the Jets are a playoff team and need to live up to that standard. Not long ago they weren't and Noel was snarly about the situation. Fans, media and no doubt the players were exposed to his displeasure as the club wallowed through a five-game winless stretch.

Noel refused to back off, smacking his club with the playoff carrot and predicting there would be "no joy in joyville," until things turned around.

The message got through, as the Jets have won eight of their last 11, including their last four in a row. The results have seen the club climb in the standings to 13-11-4, with enough points (30) to be just a sniff from a playoff spot. Not quite in, but pounding harder and harder on the door.

Noel now says the expectation of the Jets reaching the post-season needs to be entrenched in the minds of his players.

"There's no question that's my expectation. I didn't just say that because I'm the coach and you have to have goals. Basically I've put my rear end on the line and said we can be a playoff team," said Noel, prior to Friday's 4-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

"You have to be able to see where you are going. The target is right there, to be a playoff team. What's happening right now is we're winning some games and we're gaining confidence. It's all part of what we're trying to do here."

The Jets arrived in Winnipeg full of promise but were still an unknown quantity except to Noel, who after studying film all summer and putting the players through training camp, declared them playoff ready.

Noel is clearly on to something and his coaching has extracted the most out of a group that's growing before our very eyes.

"We have to get ourselves used to winning. There's adversity that's right around the corner if we don't manage this well. Our goal is still the same, to get above that line, and when you get there and you get used to winning, you win more than you lose, you win three and lose one," he said. "That starts with a mentality and we're developing it."

There's lots of hockey to be played and Noel has many hurdles to clear. But the play of the Jets has done now what Noel's words did earlier. The level of play has declared what the team's intentions should be -- to reach the playoffs.

Getting there is something else, but the youth excuse has reached its expiration date. It's time for these Jets to push through the ceiling.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2011 C3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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