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Can the Jets get far enough above 50 per cent to make playoffs?: Half good is never enough

History suggests 13 points above .500 to be in the show

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The Jets celebrate their win over the San Jose Sharks Sunday, but the players say they know they need to keep the party going to have a shot at being in the playoffs.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

The Jets celebrate their win over the San Jose Sharks Sunday, but the players say they know they need to keep the party going to have a shot at being in the playoffs. Photo Store

It is the National Hockey League's equivalent of receiving one of those lame-o 'Participant' ribbons elementary kids receive simply for crossing the finish line sometime before sundown.

Sports is about winning. And in pro sports it's about winning a lot. So make no mistake, the Winnipeg Jets -- currently on a three-game win streak -- are hardly doing cartwheels through the dressing room after reaching the .500 mark this week.

It's not a standard, after all. It's a starting point. And it also represents just how much more work the club has to do to get back in the Western Conference playoff discussion.

Consider that back in 2011-12 -- the last full NHL season before last year's lockout-shortened campaign -- the eighth-place team in the West, the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, finished 13 points over. 500.

"That's not very significant for me," said head coach Claude Noel Thursday. "We've been on the wrong side of the (playoff) line for two years in a row. And if you look at the Western (Conference) it's going to take a little bit more than .500. It's a barometer you judge things by and I'm glad that we're there.

"But, if you ask me if I'm satisfied that we're there... I wouldn't put it that way."

"We've fought back to get to .500, but .500 is nothing," added Olli Jokinen. "It's a starting point and we've got to move forward.

"Nobody should really be happy here because we're .500. You play .500 hockey you end up with 82 points so, most likely you're not going to make the playoffs. It's a good thing we got back to .500 and were able to make that step, but we've got to move forward now and find a way to get two points Friday."

All that said, there's no mistaking how the vibe has changed in Jetville over the last week or so. The team returned home from a four-game jaunt through the Central Division at the end of October in which there were some encouraging signs, albeit in spurts, before being thumped 5-1 by Chicago -- a loss that dropped them to 5-8-2.

They are 4-1 since -- the only blemish another loss to the Blackhawks -- and while .500 isn't being celebrated, there is a sense this team has found its blueprint to winning.

"It's definitely a lot more positive around here now, definitely a lot more fun to come to the rink when you're winning," said Bryan Little. "Guys are more positive and the confidence is higher. We were getting pretty frustrated when things weren't going well for us and it was pretty quiet in here for a while.

"It seems like we're a bit more patient now. We don't get as frustrated if we're in a close game and we're not getting our chances. That's when we start making mistakes. We've been playing a lot more simple lately and almost waiting for the other team to make mistakes.

"We've learned since the first Detroit game that this is the way we have to play to win games," added Little. "There's still some things we want to work on -- we don't want to be giving up 40-plus shots a game (they gave up 43 against Detroit on Tuesday) -- but the way we've been playing is our formula.

"Now the key is, if we lose a game, how quickly can we turn it around and then win a couple of more? That's our big test and something we've been working on for the last couple of years: finding a more consistent way to play."

And therein lies the warning signs in all this: the Jets have teased like this before, often following a decent run with a stumble, cough and spurt that drops them out of the playoff picture again.

Nobody is more aware of that, it could be said, than Noel. Asked Thursday if the three-game win streak had him watching for signs of complacency, the Jets' coach sounded a lot like a parent living with the frustrating flashes of immaturity and then the signs of growth of his offspring.

"It's always an animal that's out there," he said. "We're always aware of it."

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2013 C3

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