No doubt there is a temporary feel to it. And, yes, a quick glance at their rivals’ games-in-hand reveals the moment in the spotlight could be measured in hours, not days.
But the Winnipeg Jets — who edged the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in front of another rockin’ full house at MTS Centre Thursday night — could certainly get used to this panoramic view. In fact, they might like to set up like squatters, pitch some tents and camp here for awhile.
‘Occupy Southeast Division’, anyone?
And so while no one is printing playoff tickets just yet, the Jets’ win over the Bolts — coupled with Toronto’s loss to San Jose and Florida picking up one point in a shootout loss to Minnesota — means Winnipeg has moved into sole possession of the Southeast lead with a 30-26-7 record and 67 points.
That also means Winnipeg, 4-0-1 in its last five games, jumps from ninth to third in the Eastern Conference standings as a division leader.
"It’s nice to be above (the playoff line), but we understand we still have a long way to go," said captain Andrew Ladd. "We’re not going to be happy until the season’s over and we’re above the line. We need to keep taking advantage of playing at home here and playing some good hockey.
"We’re scoring goals, our power-play is clicking but, at the end of the day we’ve got 19 games left and we’ve got to keep going."
Facing a Lightning squad that is moving bodies so fast they should install a turnstile at entrance to the dressing room, the Jets jumped on their depleted visitors early and then kept their foot hammered down on the gas until late in the game. It was 2-0 after the first on goals by Andrew Ladd and Tanner Glass; 4-0 after the second when Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien chipped in — both courtesy a scorching power-play — before a late Lightning surge that saw Steven Stamkos potted his 43rd followed by goals by Teddy Purcell and Martin St. Louis in the final 56 seconds.
"We got the win, that’s the most important thing right now," said Pavelec. "It was 4-0 after the second and if you give them three power plays in the third you can’t expect it’s going to be an easy period for us. They’ve got pretty good guys and they can score the goals. A hockey game is 60 minutes. But I’m happy. We got two points and I’m extremely happy for it. It was nice to see the guys bounce back after the Philly game."
Key to the victory was the continuing work of the PP-unit — it had scored seven straight chances over the last three games before a late attempt in the third was stopped — and the emergence of the team’s elite, who not-so coincidentally have jumped off the page after Ladd’s ‘our best players have to be our best players’ speech last week.
And here’s the evidence:
-Ladd, with two goals and an assist, extended his point streak to four games (5G, 3A);
-Blake Wheeler picked up two more assists and now has one goal and 10 assists in his last five;
-Bryan Little picked up an assist to extending his point streak to four games (4G, 3A);
-Evander Kane moved his point streak to five games with an assist (4G, 4A);
-And Dustin Byfuglien had a goal and an assist tonight and now has 13 points (4G, 9A) in his last eight games.
Finally, asked about the pressure of hanging onto first in the Southeast now — the idea of being chased, not chasing — head coach Claude Noel finished with this:
"Pressure? Pressure is getting above the line and then is there pressure staying there," he said. "It’s an everyday part of what it is so you deal with it. It’s why you’re better to focus on the game. We’re not going to separate our shoulders being first in the division. We’ve played the most games in the league. We’re happy we’re there, we’ll focus on St. Louis.
"We’ve just got to put this out there and see where it goes."
If the Winnipeg Jets want to keep the good thing they’ve got going lately – 3-0-1 in their last four games – and keep their dressing room intact, they need look no further than their opponents tonight for some inspiration.
The Jets, 29-26-7, have yet to make any significant moves in advance of Monday’s trade deadline, as management continues to run with a roster that has the squad in the playoff hunt. Meantime, the Lightning, 27-26-6 and with three games in hand on Winnipeg, are moving pieces out their room so fast they should install a turnstile for a door.
And so another win tonight just might help keep the Jet roster adjustments before the trade deadline to a minimum.
The Jets face the Lightning tonight at MTS Centre (7:30 p.m.) in a battle of Southeast Division squads that have taken two directly opposite approaches to the last couple of weeks. Winnipeg has just tinkered with the lineup in place – the decision tonight will be whether to use Antti Miettinen or Eric Fehr or dress seven defenceman and only 11 forwards – while the Lightning have shipped out Dominic Moore, Pavel Kubina and Steve Downie for picks and prospects.
Tampa will also be without Vincent Lecavalier (hand), but the lineup still does feature Steven Stamkos (42 goals) and Martin St. Louis (52 points) and has won three straight.
"We’ve got to focus on playing our game," said Jets coach Claude Noel. "We are what we are and we have to find ways to win this game. If you take these guys lightly, which I don’t anticipate we will, that will be a big mistake. They just won three straight so we’re going to have to play a good game. I know that they’ve got a lot in the one line, those are the times when you find ways to win. We’ve been in those shoes before and found ways to win with less. We should know that lesson."
The Jets will start Ondrej Pavelec in goal while Mathieu Garon will be in the Tampa net. Winnipeg will once again be without defenceman Zach Bogosian and Noel is debating whether to insert Mark Flood into the lineup as a seventh defenceman or add Miettinen for Fehr.
"Mark Flood has been real good for us and he hasn’t played in six weeks at least and that’s another concern," Noel said. "The other thing, is it Miettinen or is it Fehr and why? Do you need four lines, are you playing four lines? Can you get away with 11 forwards and seven Ds? Those are all factors that play into it.
"After you’ve been out for a long time you get a little stale. I’d like to get (Flood) into a game."
Asked if he had concerns about how using 11 forwards might mean they get worn down in the game, Noel cracked:
"When you give up 55 shots are you wearing your defencemen down and your goalie? Maybe I should dress three goalies."