Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Down the stretch they come

Front-running Jets have 10 games remaining to reach the playoff wire or spit the bit

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MONTREAL -- It came and went. No blockbuster, no minor deal, not even a swap of one underachieving prospect for another.

And so with the National Hockey League trade deadline now in the rear-view mirror, the Winnipeg Jets can get down to some real business, priority No. 1 being this: squeezing tight on the playoff spot that is quickly slipping from their grasp.

The obvious question here, especially in the wake of a four-game losing skid and a 3-7 nosedive in their last 10 games, is just how they lock up a spot in the Stanley Cup tournament without a major influx -- apologies, Mike Santorelli and Aaron Gagnon -- of big-name talent.

Here are some key issues/questions that must be answered in the final 10-game stretch:

THE BUFF EXPERIMENT: A ONE-TIME DEAL OR AN IDEA THAT HAS LEGS?

The juiciest subplot to Tuesday's loss to the New York Islanders was Claude Noel's bold decision to move Dustin Byfuglien from defence to forward in the third period. He wouldn't commit to it beyond that, but Byfuglien did flash some skills working on the right side with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd that made him the same physical force that was one of the storylines of the Chicago Blackhawks' run to a championship in 2009-10. And Noel openly admitted he liked what he saw of the big man up front.

A couple of factors to consider: How big a gap -- literally and figuratively -- does Byfuglien's potential move leave in the defensive corps? And, could he be the big power forward for their top six they've long been seeking? Funny, that for all of the chatter around the trade deadline as to this being atop their wish list that the solution could possibly come from in-house.

A TOP SIX GONE DRY

Now, for all the told-you-so types out there who have been clamouring for Byfuglien to be moved up front since the Jets first relocated in Winnipeg, remember the decision wouldn't have even been contemplated if the club's top two lines had continued to be productive. But when the Ladd-Little-Blake Wheeler line goes dry, the offence becomes thirsty for goals. Consider this: It's been 11 games since Ladd scored and eight for Wheeler while Little has just one in his last 15. As well, Evander Kane has scored only twice in his last 12 games. If the Byfuglien move up front remains intact, it would mean Wheeler will be on the right side with Kane and Olli Jokinen.

A telling stat: In their four-game losing streak the Ladd-Little-Wheeler trio has combined for zero points and a -18 plus/minus. Hello.

THAT PENALTY HAS BEEN DECLINED...

What was once a growing concern is now the Jets' Achilles heel: Their power-play continues to be atrocious. During the four-game skid, Winnipeg's power play is 0-for-13 and has surrendered two short-handed goals. The Jets are one of only four teams yet to have scored on a 5-on-3 (they are 0-for-6 in 6:17 of two-man advantages), but the most telling stat might be this: Winnipeg has generated just 125 shots on 113 power-play opportunities this season. All of which explains why the unit ranks 28th overall. Question: is Noel allowed to decline the Jets' next man-advantage opportunity?

REWARDING THE FAITHFUL

There were stretches last season when the Jets, fuelled by their faithful, were a dominant club at the MTS Centre. And this year? Meh. Winnipeg is just 8-9-0 at home this season, including 1-3 in their last four -- a big part of why their current four-game slide is not only their longest of the season but the longest streak without a point since the 2009-10 season. The last time the franchise went four or more games without a point was in March of 2010 when the Atlanta Thrashers lost five games in a row.

So, for as much as everyone points to their big chunk of their schedule featuring home games -- seven of their last 10 -- it means diddly and squat if they are posting wins. Also worth noting: Both the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes have more home than road games remaining on their dockets.

COUNTERING THE FIRST PUNCH

It doesn't make for much of a fight if a team continues to dance into the middle of the ring, take the first shot square to the chin and then has no answer. Only once in the last 11 games have the Jets scored the first goal of the game, including surrendering the first marker in five straight. Essentially, falling behind compounds two factors listed above: 1. The dry spell the top two lines are experiencing and 2: An ineffective power play.

STICK TO THE GAME PLAN

Two messages overheard repeatedly in the Jets dressing room over the last couple of days -- the importance of playing physical and outworking/out-hitting teams in a lunch-pail approach to the game. And finding a sense of urgency-slash-desperation to their game that other teams in full chase mode are bringing every night. Evidence they are practising what they have been preaching? Absolutely none.

But, a remarkable stat to remember amid this public autopsy: When the Jets report to work Thursday morning at the Bell Centre for their game-day skate in advance of their game against the Canadiens, they will remain atop the Southeast Division. Given their play of late, that's nothing short of a miracle. Given what's left in their schedule, those days will be numbered if they don't stop the bleeding ASAP.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 D3

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