Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Road trips taking a toll

Jets' playoff hope riding on wins away from home

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We interrupt this familiar message and broken refrain from the Winnipeg Jets with a hard slap of reality across both cheeks...

So the Jets arrived in Pittsburgh Monday for the start of another critical road trip with the same disturbing questions about their ability to win outside of Manitoba circling over them like a flock of buzzards.

It's been said by no less an authority than head coach Claude Noel that this trip and the final 10 games of the season will ultimately define this hockey team.

It will determine whether it is a playoff squad or not, whether it has matured, whether it can morph into something more than the disappointment it was for most of 11 seasons in Atlanta -- only one of which included post-season play.

Well, here's a thought: Maybe the Jets already have their identity answer and are just reluctant to see it right now amid the push for the post-season.

Who the Jets are and what they are was in full display in Friday's dramatic win over the Washington Capitals AND in Sunday's kick-to-the-nether-regions loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

They can be breathtakingly exciting at times and it's then that their young talent base offers up glimpses of greatness. But when they absolutely have to win -- as was the case in the loss to the Canes on a night when the Caps also fell -- they looked exactly like a squad lacking something.

Maybe it's skill, intestinal fortitude, experience or a combination of all but good teams close out games like Sunday night.

And it was Noel, perhaps coming to the realization the Jets either can't or won't make that next step, who sounded so frustrated and beaten afterward on Sunday.

"Winning in this league is difficult. You know that. We knew that and we should have learned that lesson," he said. "But however you look at it... is there deception in your brain? Maybe there is. Maybe we're happy and too busy being happy that we won on Friday and thinking we can just show up on Sunday.

"You can say the right things, but it's not what you say, it's what you do. It's your actions. It's got nothing to do with what you say."

Good points, all.

Now it's quite likely that when the Jets gathered for their flight to Pennsylvania, Noel's venom had lost some of its poison and he was doing the silver-lining thing. The Jets, after all, do still have 10 games left -- and even if seven of those are on the road -- still have a puncher's shot at a playoff spot.

His comments about accountability from everyone in the hockey ops department are well played. But, as he said, it's about the doing now, not the talking.

But it's clear there is also a bigger issue at play beyond the here and now: These next 10 games won't just define who the Jets are, they will define what they look like in the future.

And so the question is, what will the management crew of Kevin Cheveldayoff & Co. -- a bunch that opted not to reshape in free agency last summer and did nothing at the trade deadline to improve the current roster -- do to change things?

This bunch is a playoff-bubble team, perhaps capable of a first-round upset given its success at home. But it can also be maddeningly inconsistent and, let's face it, that much isn't likely to change after 72 games this season.

All of this, of course, goes against the Jets' party line. They are all about the here and now and the here and now is tonight against the Penguins.

Pittsburgh or bust? Playoffs or bust?

Sure.

But sometimes it also has to be about more and the big picture is just as fuzzy and just as incomplete as what is immediately ahead. The next 10 games will tell us a lot about what happens in April, yes. But it could also dramatically impact what happens from now until opening night next October.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2012 C3

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