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Hanging hats on hope

Jets disappointed but not despondent heading into final game

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One by one various members of the Winnipeg Jets filtered into the dressing room Wednesday -- less than 24 hours after dropping their biggest game of the year -- to face a throng of media.

And one by one they all spit out, essentially, the same answer -- the Coles Notes version of which would go something like this:

'Sucks to lose to the Caps... must-win versus the Canadiens... focus on what can control... etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.'

The collective stiff upper lip notwithstanding, there was a distinct morose vibe in JetVille upon their return from Washington, D.C. Though the Jets still have an outside shot at the playoffs -- they need to beat the Montreal Canadiens in their regular-season finale tonight and then hope either the Ottawa Senators or New York Rangers poop the bed in their final games -- there was an undertone of resignation and disappointment in just about everyone's comments.

Yes, this current 6-1-1 run has been outstanding. But that five-game skid that preceded it, history could soon record, might be seen as 2013's mortal wound.

"There's going to be ups and downs in any season," said Blake Wheeler. "We had our ups and we had our downs. It's true we set ourselves behind the eight ball but, with that said what we've done down the stretch is what I'm going to choose to focus on. I think that's what everyone should choose to focus on. Had every team in front of us not won every single game we might be talking about a different situation here. But that's not the situation and that's not what happened.

"We lost five straight. We could have looked at it and folded the tent like in years past with teams that have been in that situation. We didn't. We dug our heels in and competed our asses off. That's what we're going to focus on."

That's the right approach -- the only approach -- to be sure. And if the stars should align right and one of the Rangers or Senators lose Thursday and the Jets win, then the next couple of days would become a little more intriguing.

With some help the Jets could be practising Friday and Saturday with their eyes still glued on the scoreboard (Winnipeg does hold the ROW -- regulation/overtime wins -- tiebreaker over the Sens and Rangers).

But if they don't get help, regardless of what happens against the Habs they'll be doing the locker clean-up routine and heading home after another season without playoff hockey.

"Obviously that was a pretty big game last night and a tough one to lose," said Derek Meech. "In the same respect, we're going to play for some pride and also there's a chance here still. It's small, but the only thing we can do is come tomorrow, leave it all on the ice and see where the cards fall.

"We've been battling really hard and to go on a stretch like that and be in the position we're in... it just shows you how tight things are and how tough it is to get into the playoffs."

Again, a sense of resignation. But the Jets also cling to this: their work in the last eight games -- almost every one of them with a playoff feel as the teams they chased kept winning and winning -- is their perfect blueprint... either for the playoffs next week or for 2013-14.

Last word goes to Wheeler, when asked what he and his teammates have learned about themselves during the home stretch:

"We learned we have it in this room. We have it. It's there. We've been playing playoff hockey now for a number of games and we've been good. I think we've proven to ourselves that we belong in that discussion.

"If things (end) up that we're the ninth-place team... I don't think we feel like we're the ninth-place team. We feel like we belong in that Top 8 and if we don't end up being there that's the way it goes. We've certainly left it all on the ice up to this point and we're going to do that tomorrow night and cross our fingers and that's the best we can do." Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2013 D5

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