Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

False parity keeps most teams in playoff hunt

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IF the guy attached to the name in the byline above was a foot taller, had a better haircut and could locate some dazzling small talk once in a blue moon, a long and steamy relationship with supermodel Kate Upton would certainly be in the cards.

It's this leap of logic that rides alongside the notion of the Winnipeg Jets earning some mythical playoff-worthy stamp of approval in Denver the other night. Following the Jets impressive -- and it was a solid effort, no question -- 4-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche, most of the post-game glee centred around how the club had finally reached the NHL's spring hockey standard, believers never once pausing to glance at a calendar or a pocket schedule.

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Reality check: There are still three-plus months left in the regular season.

Double reality check: Who wrote the Jets off as a playoff team before Tuesday and why are we counting them as one now because they owned a tiebreaker with Ottawa?

The truth is, the Jets were never in or out of the playoff race prior to winning in Denver, nor will they be in or out of one following tonight's game with the Los Angeles Kings (MTS Centre, 7:30 p.m.). Coming into Wednesday's action, the Jets (17-14-5) were in eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with 39 points, right near the middle of a group of seven clubs (from sixth to 12th place) separated by a mere five points.

In today's NHL, no team is really out of playoff consideration until the end. Given the way the league grades wins and losses (two points for a win, one point for a loss after 60 minutes) a false parity is formed, allowing for a longer stretch of fan interest as teams bunch up in the middle of each conference.

Outside of a prolonged double-digit win streak, separation between clubs becomes next to impossible and the dreaded "three-point game" (the scenario where rivals battle to essentially not lose in regulation) soon enters the vocabulary.

Remember the New Jersey Devils last season? They started with a 9-22-2 record and still managed to stay in the playoff hunt right up until Game 78. The longer teams are engaged, the league feels, the better it is for the product as a whole.

Are the Jets a playoff team? Eventually, say when March rolls around, the answer will present itself but until then it might be a little early to place such value on a modest conference standing.

Before coming to Manitoba, the Atlanta Thrashers sat in a top three Eastern Conference position thanks to a 19-11-5 start to the 2010-11 campaign. The Thrashers were the story of the early season back then, looking like a young playoff upstart before anyone noticed that the playoffs actually started in April.

If only the season ended in December. Atlanta won six of its next 27 games, battled for a spot the rest of the season before finishing near the bottom, and the team eventually moved to Winnipeg.

Obviously, this is an extreme example and a relocation won't happen should the Jets drop out of the precarious playoff position they find themselves in during this brief moment of the 82-game season, but when dissecting instant overreaction as it pertains to the local hockey fix, it's hard to know where one insanity starts and another begins.

If Twitter can go crazy with talk of Winnipeg in the playoffs or being a "playoff team" on Dec. 27, 2011, then we can't be quick to dismiss the idea that Jet fans should bone up on the top prospects in the 2012 NHL entry draft if their team stumbles and falls out of the top eight.

Playoff talk in December or Nail Yakupov Jets jerseys?

One overreaction deserves another. You can't have a heaven without a hell.

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2011 C3

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