Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nobody said it would be easy

Playoff quest hits a snag

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If ever there was a good time for a day off, Sunday was it for the Winnipeg Jets.

A practice to follow up their messy 8-5 loss Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh could well have been an unhappy hour, given the man who would have been in charge of the exercise, head coach Claude Noel, used the word "disrespectful" in describing their play in the defeat.

One supposes that today's back-to-work session at the MTS Centre also runs the risk of being an intense one for the the players, but at least Noel will have had an extra day to calm down towards his usual thoughtful and plotting self by the time they get on the ice.

And an extra day to remember that these Jets did last week what he said seven days ago -- from here to the end of the regular season they need to win two out of every three games.

Of course, given a Tuesday victory over Toronto and Thursday's shootout win in Washington, Saturday's setback in Pittsburgh was a wasted opportunity and nothing less. It will certainly not be excused as a throwaway game the Jets had to play with.

It's easy to see why Noel was so flustered, so cranky on Saturday.

His team had been in a routine of style for 10 games, starting to clamp down defensively as teams regularly do at this time year. The Jets had given up 19 goals in those 10 games and even if it had come at the cost of their own offence, which was running at a lower pace than that, at least there was a semblance of consistency in an important area.

And when they dropped the puck in Pittsburgh, two Jets goals went up on the board almost as quickly as they had late in the amazing evening in Washington.

Which only made the events of the afternoon all the harder to explain.

Surely the Jets didn't think they'd beat the Penguins in a track meet. And yet that was a reasonable question given the way some of their defencemen started moving up the ice and past the play on multiple occasions.

Somebody like Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, who hadn't been able to play the first meeting in Winnipeg and contributed one paltry assist in the second, certainly got excited when he quickly figured out there were going to be fewer impediments to scoring than he normally encounters.

He set up three of the first four goals and then added one of his own on the way to a five-point game.

Noel was so offended Saturday he steadfastly refused to cite or even look for a single positive from the affair.

But you can say this for this for the Jets -- even though they were making a hash of a good start and a great opportunity to move higher, they didn't just lay down.

Maybe the five goals, wasted though they were, could offer a sliver of extra confidence somewhere in the final 25 games.

It starts Tuesday at home against the New York Islanders, the next biggest game of the year that will be the first indication of how the Jets might emerge from the wreck of Saturday.

And keep in mind the effects of being overrun by the Penguins will need to be dealt with down the road as well. The Jets have other elite teams on their docket in the coming weeks, including Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, the division-leading Florida Panthers, Vancouver, the Penguins again and the Rangers.

As Noel likes to say, and undoubtedly will again this week, if this was easy, everybody would do it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2012 C2

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