MONTREAL -- Every week brings a new level of most important games and critical challenges.
Here we go with the next such test for the Winnipeg Jets, who made December the first step towards what they crave most -- success on the ice.
Having acquitted themselves well during their most favourable stretch of the schedule for the entire 2011-12 season, a 10-4-1 run over a 15-game period, the Jets now embark on a January that will validate their recent play
Or not. What's ahead of them this week, starting tonight at the Bell Centre against the Montreal Canadiens, are visits to three teams now below them in the NHL's Eastern Conference standings.
And three teams who have problems and controversies and levels of chaos of their own.
The Jets arrived here Tuesday to face a Habs team they shellacked 4-0 in Winnipeg just two weeks ago.
Things aren't much better for Montreal, which has lost seven of eight and six of seven since Randy Cunneyworth took over as coach.
The Canadiens are eight points behind Winnipeg and GM Pierre Gauthier was out in front of reporters Monday explaining himself.
Still, the controversy swirls over having a head coach, interim though he might be, who doesn't speak French. Gauthier was said to "apologize" for it, but it only revealed that some headline writers, reporters and fans fell for it.
Gauthier issued today's politically correct apology -- "I'm sorry if you're offended" -- which is no apology at all, and what he said was actually the anti-apology, which was "I was right to hire Cunneyworth."
That, and the Habs have players scrapping in practice, their power play is dreadful and injuries are really having an impact. All that has pushed the team to a miserable 5-7-6 home record.
In Toronto, the Leafs can't seem to go long without giving up a power-play goal or three. Witness last Saturday's disappointment against the Jets as evidence.
And the nattering masses and their knives are still out for coach Ron Wilson for his team's recent swoon down to 10th place after a brisk start.
Over in Buffalo, new owner Terry Pegula set out to change the Sabres' culture by throwing some money around, but the results haven't been all that evident.
The Sabres have been ravaged by injuries and inconsistency and have sagged recently, winning only two of their last 10 to fall to .500 at 17-17-4. Surprisingly, that's four points behind Winnipeg and out of a playoff position to start the week, not exactly where the new regime had envisioned things with high-priced free agents like Christian Ehrhoff, who's now out, and high-profile goalie Ryan Miller.
The Jets, of course, aren't without their own issues, like how long defenceman Dustin Byfuglien will be out with his lower-body injury or when Eric Fehr will commence his offensive contributions.
But really, those are on the boring side compared to their opponents this week, and it's incumbent on the Jets to extract points from these games in a surgical fashion if they're truly a better team than in October and November.
One can see that Jets coach Claude Noel is trying to cover all hatches that could lead to a drop-off after success at home. He absolutely batted away the suggestion that his team was out this week with the attitude that its opponents are inferior because they're down in the standings.
A couple of weeks back, Jets forward Kyle Wellwood said simply that the controversy surrounding the Habs didn't worry him, and that it even made him feel better. Why? Nothing personal, but if the other guy's more distracted, then great.
The Jets' trip concludes with a game in Boston against the Bruins next Tuesday, and the soaring Stanley Cup champs don't have many problems at all.
But that's next week's most important game of the season.
Jets Report D3;
The road ahead
@ Montreal -- Tonight, 6:30 p.m.
@ Toronto -- Thursday, 6 p.m.
@ Buffalo -- Saturday, 6 p.m.
@ Boston -- Tuesday, Jan. 10, 6 p.m.