Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets are Number One*

* In Southeast, but Toronto and Florida have games in hand

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No doubt there is a temporary feel to it. And, yes, a quick glance at their rivals' games-in-hand reveals the moment in the spotlight could be measured in hours, not days.

But the Winnipeg Jets -- who edged the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in front of another rockin' full house at the MTS Centre Thursday night -- could certainly get used to this panoramic view. In fact, they might like to set up like squatters, pitch some tents and camp here for awhile. 'Occupy Southeast Division', anyone?

And so while no one is printing playoff tickets just yet, the Jets' win over the Bolts -- coupled with Toronto's loss to San Jose and Florida picking up just one point in a shootout loss to Minnesota -- means Winnipeg has moved into sole possession of the Southeast penthouse with a 30-26-7 record and 67 points.

That also means Winnipeg, 4-0-1 in its last five games, jumps from ninth to third in the Eastern Conference standings as a division leader.

"It's nice to be above (the playoff line), but we understand we still have a long way to go," said captain Andrew Ladd.

"We're not going to be happy until the season's over and we're above the line. We need to keep taking advantage of playing at home here and playing some good hockey.

"We're scoring goals, our power-play is clicking but, at the end of the day we've got 19 games left and we've got to keep going."

Facing a Lightning squad that is moving bodies so fast they should install a turnstile at the entrance to the dressing room, the Jets jumped on their depleted visitors early and then kept their foot hammered down on the gas until late in the game.

It was 2-0 after the first on goals by Andrew Ladd and Tanner Glass; 4-0 after the second when Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien chipped in -- both courtesy a scorching power play -- before a late Lightning surge saw Steven Stamkos pot his 43rd followed by goals by Teddy Purcell and Martin St. Louis in the final 56 seconds.

"We got the win, that's the most important thing right now," said goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. "A hockey game is 60 minutes. But I'm happy. We got two points and I'm extremely happy for it. It was nice to see the guys bounce back after the Philly game."

Key to the victory was the continuing work of the power-play unit -- it had scored seven straight chances over the last three games before a late attempt in the third was stopped -- and the emergence of the team's elite, who not-so coincidentally have jumped off the page after Ladd's 'our best players have to be our best players' speech last week.

And here's the evidence:

-- Ladd, with two goals and an assist, extended his point streak to four games (5G, 3A);

-- Blake Wheeler picked up two more assists and now has one goal and 10 assists in his last five;

-- Bryan Little picked up an assist to extending his point streak to four games (4G, 3A);

-- Evander Kane moved his point streak to five games with an assist (4G, 4A);

-- And Dustin Byfuglien had a goal and an assist tonight and now has 13 points (4G, 9A) in his last eight games.

Finally, asked about the pressure of hanging onto first in the Southeast now -- the idea of being chased, not chasing -- head coach Claude Noel finished with this:

"Pressure? Pressure is getting above the line and then is there pressure staying there," he said.

"It's an everyday part of what it is so you deal with it. It's why you're better to focus on the game. We're not going to separate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back for being first in the division. We've played the most games in the league. We're happy we're there, we'll focus on St. Louis.

"We've just got to put this out there and see where it goes."

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

jets report c3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2012 C1

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