Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's a big game, indeed

Grabbing a win over Washington critical for Jets' playoff pursuit

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Since a January swoon, the Winnipeg Jets have been playing every night for their playoff lives.

Tonight when the Washington Capitals visit the MTS Centre, the next biggest game of the Jets' season figures to be a crossroads -- they either make a serious case to grab a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, or concede it to the Capitals.

 

Today, the difference in the teams is this:

-- The Caps have won four in a row and (after losing three straight) and have 78 points, good for eighth in the conference through 70 games.

-- The Jets come off Wednesday's thorough 5-2 beating of Dallas and have 74 points, 10th in the conference and four behind the vaunted Caps.

When it's over tonight, the difference will be two, three, five or six points and one side will claim momentum.

"Obviously it's a huge game and we understand where we sit and how (far) the outcome of this game will go for us to make the playoffs," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said Thursday, when his team engaged in just a casual optional skate.

"We're going to have to have the urgency of the playoffs and I'm sure the atmosphere is going to be great."

Winnipeg's road does not end with this game, but with a chance to gain head-to-head ground on their closest important target prompts all the usual rhetoric.

Big game, indeed.

"We've been hearing that a lot lately," Ladd said with a smile. "We're going to approach it the same way as we have lately. I think we've been great right off the hop and all year, for big games, we've showed up and played well. We're going to have to continue that (tonight)."

There will be no better time than the present for the Jets to make inroads against Washington. The Caps are playing the second of five straight road games tonight, moving on to Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia next, then they return home to face... wait for it, the Jets next Friday.

Home ice, where Winnipeg is 22-10-4 this season, is one reason the Jets continue to sound optimistic about their chances.

"When we're excited to play, and playing with energy and skating, you've seen the results," said the team's leading point getter, Blake Wheeler. "There hasn't been a team that's come into this building, I don't care who it is, and have their way with us when we've played our A game.

"That's something to take a lot of confidence from. It doesn't really matter what Washington does. We feel like we play a certain way in this building and we're a tough team to beat."

What Washington does, according to Jets coach Claude Noel, will potentially make for more of a chess-style match tonight. Thinking, not winging it, will be the higher priority.

"It's not the same Washington team that Bruce (Boudreau) coached," Noel said. "They don't play the same way. They're way more patient. For example, Mike Green's back in the lineup and he was playing almost as a fourth forward before. He's more controlled now.

"Same with their team. They pose different issues. They can score. They've got some dynamic players. They've got some players out. It should make for a good game. You have to be patient. It's not a run-and-gun so much. They can play that way but they don't run-and-gun as a group.

"They can be dangerous."

Still, the bigger picture of the Jets' playoff chances includes games away from the MTS Centre. Winnipeg has seven road games to go, and are 11-19-4 to this point.

"I think we're in a good place right now, with 12 games (remaining)," Noel said. "I just look forward to playing the next game right now, whether it's at home or on the road."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2012 C3

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