Those with visions of the Winnipeg Jets coasting into the playoffs as runaway winners of the NHL’s Southeast Division need to get a new outlook.
The Jets stumbled badly at home Saturday, falling 3-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes, the team directly in their rear-view mirror in the division.
The result leaves Winnipeg four points clear in the lead, 38-34, but then there’s that matter of Carolina having 15 games to play, while only 12 are left for the Jets.
And other teams, like Washington and the Islanders, are sniffing for a chance.
"That’s why it’s called a race," a grim Jets coach Claude Noel said after the Saturday setback. "We’re still in the lead.
"The division race will play itself out. We had an opportunity to extend the gap and ... No one’s more disappointed than us. We didn’t come here anticipating this today. The division race is going to get played out."
The prize is automatic qualification for the Stanley Cup playoffs, in this case as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The conference’s top eight qualify for the post-season, but there seem to be fewer possibilities that way for whoever doesn’t win the division.
After a scoring chance, the game went the other way on the Jets when Alexander Semin deposited a turnover into the Winnipeg goal at 1:06. Jussi Jokinen converted the cross-ice feed for a 2-0 goal at 9:41, just a second after a power play expired.
"They got a good bounce," Jets right-winger Blake Wheeler said. "Guy was alone on the back door and tapped it in the empty net."
Another early-period goal, this time by the Jets. Olli Jokinen converted Evander Kane’s pass at 1:26 for his seventh of the season and first at home. From there, the Jets went hard into attack mode and had great chances to tie the game — hello, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little for the best — before running into bad penalty trouble at mid-period. Winnipeg played shorthanded 7:34 of the period’s final 9:46.
"I don’t think we were able to take advantage of some of the momentum that happened," Noel said. "There were pockets of momentum, I wouldn’t say a whole slough of them, but pockets that we might have taken advantage of, killing those penalties in a row.
"I thought we could have pounced some there but we didn’t. It just kind of worked in reverse for us."
Three for three on early goals. This time, Eric Staal scored 28 seconds in after the Jets turned it over after gaining possession behind their own net. Winnipeg had trouble sustaining much attack the rest of the way.
"We had a lot of good things going in that second period and to give up one right away in the third, it hurt us a little bit," Wheeler said.
After the buzzer
The pressure mounts in a lot of locales as the season winds down. The Jets now have three road games in front of them, starting Monday against the Rangers.
"Overall, we split with (Carolina) at the end of the week," Wheeler said. "I guess that’s not the end of the world. It’s all about how we respond next week."
Noel was certainly in no mood to start ranting on his players after this defeat.
"The players are on the ice," he said. "You talk to them. You tell them. You try to do that sometimes because they want to try to change things themselves, they look like 20 individuals. What do you want to do? Paint lines on the ice? They’ve played the game before. We didn’t look very organized in some of those ways so you try to help them out. But after a while... they’ve got to want to change it themselves."