FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If the Winnipeg Jets want to be a playoff team, they need to take advantage of the opportunities presented. The Florida Panthers are one such opportunity.
Losers of three straight and five of six, the Panthers are among the worst teams in hockey. The Jets, if they indeed are ready to take a step towards the playoffs, need to play the bully and kick the last-place Panthers while they are down.
It's pretty simple for the Jets. Hammer on the worst teams in the league and hope to steal a few from the elite. They can't afford to drop games the standings say they should win.
At season's end, when coach Claude Noel and his players look back with relish or anger, games like these will be the focus. Dump the Panthers and grab the points and the Jets improve their playoff outlook.
Lose to a team decimated by injury and stuck near the bottom of the league and prepare for regret. Sure, there's lots of hockey to go, but wins are required to keep the games meaningful.
Winnipeg plays four road games this week, two in Florida against the Panthers plus games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New Jersey Devils. All the games but Sunday's in Newark are against Southeast Division rivals.
"We have three games within our division this week. We have to set our sights on (Southeast Division leading) Carolina and see if we can chip away at the difference in points in our division," Noel said after practice on Monday. "We need to continually win games and get points. We've won some games cleanly but we've lost some cleanly, too. When you lose cleanly it comes back and gets you that way, too. Every point is important at this juncture."
The Hurricanes were handed terrible news on Monday when they learned No. 1 goalie Cam Ward will be out six to eight weeks. The Southeast Division is still wide open, with the Jets just four points back of Carolina.
Noel says the playoffs is what he's after, whether it's by winning the division or clearing the top eight in the conference.
"I don't know that we target one or the other but just focus on the games in front of us," said Noel. "When you start focusing on the line and eighth place and all that... I think you have to have singular focus on the game. When it's a divisional game, to me it's a little more important in the fact that you win two points and you don't give your opponent two points. First in the division would be great because it seeds you third in the conference and that's a lot better."
The Jets face the struggling Lightning on Thursday before heading north to meet New Jersey.
The Lightning have only won three of their last 10 and are vulnerable, too. The Jets have beat the Devils twice in a row and a third straight win is a tall order.
Who knows how it will play out, but a split or better with the Panthers sets up the Jets to make this road trip successful -- which is a must.
Last season, the Panthers were one of the surprise stories of the NHL. Coach Kevin Dineen and GM Dale Tallon put together a group that overachieved and won the Southeast Division. But injuries have destroyed all that good work from one season ago.
The Panthers lost 3-2 to the Hurricanes on Sunday, with eight regulars out of the lineup. Starting goalie Jose Theodore is out for six weeks while defencemen Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver, Michael Caruso and veteran Ed Jovanovski are also injured. Up front, the Panthers are missing Scottie Upshall and Jets-killer Kris Versteeg. Florida is 2-6 against Southeast Division opponents and the Jets need to get in on the fun.
The Jets' season doesn't hang in the balance, but the Panthers offer up a chance to store points and it can't be passed up.
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