The Winnipeg Jets have become THE authority on life under a microscope, its ups and downs, pros and cons.
All of this, of course, is the natural byproduct of a collection of players, coaches and management who have been essentially swimming around on a petri dish since relocating to NHL-starved Winnipeg from Atlanta last summer. Quite clearly, having every pass, every save, every shot magnified 1,000 times can occasionally be a royal pain in the backside.
But it's at these moments -- with the fate of their 2011-12 season to be decided over the next 17 games or so -- that the Jets hope the whole experience can harden their bunch, maybe even galvanize them enough to turn into a playoff team.
So it was put to captain Andrew Ladd on the eve of the Jets' next "biggest game of the season" -- the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, who are in town today -- that perhaps everyone, the players included, will soon learn a whole lot about themselves.
"We've already learned a lot about ourselves in the last month here and what we can do and how well we can play," Ladd said. "You can see the confidence we have in each other has grown in that time. That's a promising thing to see. Hopefully, we use this going forward."
Aye, there's the rub. Yes, for all the talk about the growth and maturity this team has shown over the course of the season, it remains unfulfilled -- cheap psycho-babble, almost -- if it doesn't result in a playoff berth. Expectations in these parts have changed since October and the flashes this squad has shown, especially in December and during the recent run, have left everyone in this town wanting -- demanding -- more.
All of which brings us to today's game against the Panthers. The Jets, ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 30-27-8 record, have two games remaining against Florida, and the Panthers not only have a four-point lead on their hosts tonight, they have three games in hand.
"Latest 'biggest game of the year,' " Ladd said with a grin. "It seems like every one coming up is the biggest game of the year. But, obviously, it's a team we're trying to catch. It's a big four-point game and we're on the outside (of the playoff picture) looking in. It's a game we need to have."
And so it could be said this is more than just another in a series of 82 tests for the Jets. This one will reveal a lot, most importantly the team's ability to put Monday's stinker versus Edmonton behind them and whether they are ready to take that next leap from team with potential to team with playoff spot.
"You should be excited -- this is what it's all about," said Ladd. "We're in a run to get into the playoffs. It's a fun time of year. Every game means so much and we're lucky enough to play in a building where the fans really understand that and they're really excited to have that opportunity, too. It's just such a great atmosphere for us.
"It's the first crack at the playoffs for a lot of guys in here, so there's lots of motivation to really give everything you have for this last 16, 17 games that we have and make sure that we have the opportunity to play playoff games, because that's really what it's all about. That's when the fun starts."
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