Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hunger pains

Jets starving for a chance to dine at the playoff party

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High up on Bryan Little's cheekbone -- left side, near his eye -- are the visible remnants of a fairly recent gash. And now that painful reminder has a couple of partners: an ugly cut across the bridge of his nose and a scrape on his upper lip that came Thursday night after a collision with Florida's Erik Gudbranson and the end boards.

This is the face many have seen before -- the face of sacrifice, of commitment, of the price to be paid. And if this were a month from now and Little and his Winnipeg Jets teammates were to find themselves in the postseason, it would be held up and glorified as the visage of a player battling in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Right now, that's still a big 'if', what with the Jets still staring up at eight teams in the Eastern Conference standings. But it's also not being melodramatic to suggest it's the hunger to get to the postseason that is driving this club right now through a three-game win streak.

Yes, there has been a hint of desperation in the collective Jets voices of late and a real evidence of it in their game.

And on their faces.

"The last time I played in a playoff game was with the Chicago Wolves in my first year as a pro," said Little. "That was five years ago.

"Anyone that's never played in a playoff game is pretty hungry to get in there. I know there's a couple of us guys who have been with Atlanta for a long time who haven't played in a playoff game... so, I'm pretty anxious. We were close last year.

"That's my dream."

He's not alone. Of the 28 players now with the Jets -- not including rookie Jacob Trouba, who has yet to suit up -- 16, or more than half, have never played in a single Stanley Cup playoff game.

Just to hammer home that point, Zach Bogosian, Alex Burmistrov, Grant Clitsome, Toby Enstrom, Aaron Gagnon, Ron Hainsey, Evander Kane, Arturs Kulda, Little, Al Montoya, Ondrej Pavelec, Anthony Peluso, Paul Postma, Mike Santorelli, Chris Thorburn and James Wright have combined to play in 3,382 regular-season games but ZERO in the postseason.

"I'm just really focussed on these last games to try and change that and make (playing in the playoffs) a reality," said Kane. "I really want to play in the playoffs. I don't want to go home early this year. It's already been a shortened season and it would be extremely disappointing if we didn't get the job done.

"If we get hot and we win the majority of these last games it's going to give us a good shot going into the playoffs. Once you get in the playoffs anything can happen. It's cliche, but it's true. For us it's an opportunity win and that's all I want. And if you don't give yourself that opportunity you have no chance."

What the Jets hope to do in the next six games is twofold: 1. Lock up a playoff spot for the franchise for first time since 2006-07 and 2. Begin writing their own postseason history, separate from the Atlanta Thrashers crew that was swept out of the first round by the New York Rangers in its' one and only trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"In the past... I don't know how it was last year but usually in Atlanta, this team has been way out of the playoff position this time of year," said Olli Jokinen, a veteran of 1,084 NHL games, but only six in the playoffs. "It's a great experience for the players and a great challenge at the same time.

"We don't want to be here in two weeks and say that 'Oh, we were close.' That's not the mindset we have. We have these couple of days off to get energized for that last stretch and we're going to be ready in the playoffs once we get there.

"This is the exciting time of the year. We're happy that we're in the position that we can control where we're going. Obvioisly it would be nice to have 10 more points and breathe a little easier but at the same time this team hasn't been in the playoffs for a while and for a lot of the players this is a great situation."

Great, only if they can finish the deal here. Maybe that, in part, explains why Little returned in the third period after taking the hit from Gudbranson that opened up his nose and left some wondering if he had busted it.

Just for the record, the Jets were winning 6-2 when Little exited.

"You play every year to play for the Stanley Cup," said Little. "That's why you play the regular season. Most kids that grow up in Canada, that's their dream: to play in the NHL AND to win the Stanley Cup. To give yourself a chance at the second, you've got to make it to the playoffs and I can tell you it's been tough not being there year after year.

"Plus, I'd love to see what it would be like here if there was a playoff game," Little added, with a sly grin. "I think it would be crazy."

--with files from Tim Campbell

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


Pining for spring hockey...

A look at Jet players who have yet to suit up for a NHL playoff game:

Zach Bogosian

Age: 22

NHL GP: 294; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Peterborough Petes (OHL), 2007-08

Alex Burmistrov

Age: 21

NHL GP: 188; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Barrie Colts (OHL), 2009-10

Grant Clitsome

Age: 27

NHL GP: 143; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Syracuse Crunch (AHL), 2007-08

Tobias Enstrom

Age: 28

NHL GP: 402; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Modo (Sweden), 2006-07

Aaron Gagnon

Age: 26

NHL GP: 32; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: St. John's IceCaps, 2011-12

Ron Hainsey

Age: 32

NHL GP: 585; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL), 2004-05

Evander Kane

Age: 21

NHL GP: 255; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Vancouver Giants (WHL), 2008-09

Arturs Kulda

Age: 24

NHL GP: 15; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: St. John's IceCaps (AHL), 2011-12

Bryan Little

Age: 25

NHL GP: 398; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Chicago Wolves (AHL), 2007-08

Al Montoya

Age: 28

NHL GP: 63; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: San Antonio Rampage (AHL) in 2007-08

Ondrej Pavelec

Age: 25

NHL GP: 225; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Chicago Wolves (AHL), 2007-08

Anthony Peluso

Age: 23

NHL GP: 5; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Peoria Rivermen (AHL), 2010-11

Paul Postma

Age: 24

NHL GP: 32; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: St. John's IceCaps (AHL), 2011-12

Mike Santorelli

Age: 27

NHL GP: 202; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Milwaukee Admirals (AHL), 2009-10

Chris Thorburn

Age: 29

NHL GP: 462; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: Rochester Americans (AHL), 2004-05

James Wright

Age: 23

NHL GP: 81; Playoffs: 0

Last playoff game: San Antonio Rampage (AHL) in 2011-12

... and itching to get back

A look at the Jets who have appeared in playoff games:

Nik Antropov: 786 GP; 35 career NHL playoff games; last in 2008-09 with Rangers

Dustin Byfuglien: 444 GP; 39 career NHL playoff games; last in 2009-10 with Chicago

Olli Jokinen: 1084 GP; 6 career NHL playoff games; last in 2008-09 with Calgary

Andrew Ladd: 526 GP, 53 career NHL playoff games; last in 2009-10 with Chicago; two-time Stanley Cup champion with Chicago and Carolina

Derek Meech: 141 GP; 2 career NHL playoff games; last in 2008-09 with Detroit

Antti Miettinen: 537 GP, 24 career NHL playoff games; last in 2007-08 with Dallas

Jim Slater: 475 GP, 4 career NHL playoff games; last in 2006-07 with Atlanta

Mark Stuart: 422 GP; 22 career NHL playoff games; last in 2009-10 with Boston

Eric Tangradi: 75 GP, 3 career NHL playoff games; last in 2011-12 with Pittsburgh

Kyle Wellwood: 484 GP; 40 career NHL playoff games; last in 2010-11 with San Jose

Blake Wheeler: 366 GP; 21 career NHL playoff games; last in 2009-10 with Boston

-- Tait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 C3

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