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Jets target Capitals in crucial matchup

Little: Road trip could make or break season

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- You might as well get used to it -- next up for the Winnipeg Jets is their biggest game of the year.

Having won their most recent biggest game of the year on Tuesday night, a 2-1 home win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets headed to Washington Wednesday and meet the Capitals, another team ahead of them in the NHL's Eastern Conference standings, tonight at 6 o'clock at Verizon Center.

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The Capitals are not only ahead of Winnipeg but they're a special target.

That's because the Jets are actually closer to the third seed in the Eastern Conference than the eighth seed.

The Caps lead the Southeast Division at 60 points after Tuesday's blanking of Florida. That's only four ahead of Winnipeg.

"We haven't been great on the road this year so this is a big road trip for us," said centre Bryan Little, who supplied the winning goal on Tuesday. "These are big points. It could come down to how this road trip goes as to whether we make the playoffs or not."

Little is right; the Jets have been poor on the road almost all season. They are 4-8-0 away from home in the New Year, about the same level of lousy as the road record for the entire season, 9-16-4, bringing an even tighter focus on this week's games against the Caps and Saturday in Pittsburgh.

"Statistically it's been an issue for us as far as wins and losses so if we're going to make this push, we've got to improve our road record," said Jets right-winger Chris Thorburn, who also scored on Tuesday. "There's no bigger game than against Washington ahead of us. We have to get our rest and go after them."

That rest has no doubt been a challenge but there is a respite not far in the distance.

Once the Jets get through this week's two-game swing, they'll come home for a game next Tuesday against the New York Islanders and then go to Minnesota to meet the Wild next Thursday.

At that point, the Jets will have played 32 road games and only 27 at home, and they'll begin an oasis of eight in a row at the MTS Centre.

Being as close to the Southeast lead or to the eighth conference spot as they are today would be helpful, but that's only going to happen with results in the next week.

"This is definitely a good start (to the week)," Little said. "This is going to be a big test on this road trip and if it goes good then maybe it could give us some momentum to have a good rest of the season.

"(Thursday) is going to be a tough game; it's always hard to beat Washington in their building. But hopefully this will give us some confidence and some momentum. It's a big game for us."

There isn't a game ahead that won't be big, as we said earlier, but in the context of what these Jets went through as the Atlanta Thrashers last season, there will be both meaning and repercussions to the next few weeks.

That's because the Thrashers faded dramatically in last season's third quarter and they could never get a grip on stopping the slide to out of the playoffs by 13 points.

"We kind of learned we have to be more consistent every night," Little said. "Last year we had a really good start and we were up in the standings and then we kind of faded. We had a month, month and a half where we didn't play well.

"You can't do that if you want to make the playoffs. We haven't really had that stretch where we went that long without playing well. We've learned a bit. We've had games, two or three, without playing great but we seem to bounce back. I think we're kind of in that situation right now. It's kind of make or break."

With much the same team, this crew is aware of the current dilemma, and of the past failure, but they are not dredging that up for discussion or motivation on a regular basis.

"Honestly, not really," Little reported. "Everyone knows what happened. I think we kind of learned our lesson, guys who were here last year. It was a long summer and a lot of regrets. I think we've learned a lesson and it's kind of unspoken."

And what Little certainly didn't need to say was that the best talking comes on the ice.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2012 C1

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