It is a gruelling sprint to the starting line just to qualify for the Stanley Cup derby as NHL squads enter the meat grinder that is the final quarter of the regular season.
So say this about the Winnipeg Jets, a club which hit the 60-game mark in Friday's 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins: For all their warts and flaws they remain very much in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
And given the 20-game quarter the club just completed -- as tumultuous as any this season -- the fact they remain in the fight does say something of their pluck and their resiliency.
A small sampling: It was early in the third period of Friday's win over the Bruins when the Jets surrendered a goal 49 seconds in to tie the score at 2-2 and then took a penalty 54 seconds later. But they stiffened and fired back rather than wilt under the pressure.
"As a coach you're happy to see that resiliency back," said head coach Claude Noel. "We've seen it before, but we lost it there for awhile. It's good to see we stayed with it. You look through the notes and you see that Boston is a plus-33 goal differential in the third... we talked a little bit about it before the game and again after the second period. And then they came out and scored in the first shift and I thought, 'Oh, how is this going to go?' But the guys battled."
Now the question is this: can this transplanted squad from Atlanta -- a franchise which hasn't made the playoffs in four years and only once in its 11 seasons in Georgia -- fight, scrap and claw its way into the post-season?
Some trends to consider as the Jets have reached the three-quarter pole and head to the home stretch:
FOUR GOOD TRENDS
1. A near-empty sick bay.
Defenceman Zach Bogosian is skating, but his status today's game against Colorado remains unclear. That said, the Jets are as healthy right now as they have been all season. Remember, this is a team that has used 12 defencemen this season and missed Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, Bryan Little and others for long stretches.
2. A captain's call answered.
Earlier in the week Jets' captain Andrew Ladd made this simple proclamation: The team's best players, himself included, had to be better.
Again, the sampling is small, but in the last two games the Jets' best have been solid in wins over Minnesota and Boston.
3. The last line of defence.
Forget the debacle that was the 8-5 loss to Pittsburgh eight days ago. The Jets continue to get quality goaltending from both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason and good overall defensive play. And for a team that has been so offensively-challenged the goaltenders, in particular, have to be brilliant game in/game out because of the small margin for error.
4. Cross fingers and pray for extra time.
The Jets were horrible in overtime/shootout games before Christmas with a 1-5 record, but since then have gone 6-1. Since losing to Florida in a shootout on Jan. 21, Winnipeg has beaten the Flyers, Caps and Wild in the shootout and knocked off Tampa in OT.
THREE BAD TRENDS
1. The not-so-special teams.
First things first: The penalty kill was spectacular against the Bruins, completely changing momentum with a couple of kills that then led to Jet goals. But overall it ranks 19th in the NHL.
And the power play? Yeesh. It's also 19th in the NHL, but those numbers are nosediving. Winnipeg hasn't scored a PP goal in four games, has just two in its last 12 and has converted only five of its last 50. That's just plain awful.
2. The offensive production.
It's true, things look a little rosier after the last couple of games and results that have seen some the Jets' guns -- Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little -- start firing again. But even with the mini burst, Winnipeg still ranks 24th in goals for at 2.40.
3. The road record.
There's still no escaping this, even after the win in Minny last Thursday: Winnipeg's 11-17-4 mark away from the MTS Centre has to improve if it hopes to be playing meaningful games come mid-April.
But it was Pavelec, arguably the Jets' MVP, who best summed up where the club is at.
"We are in a playoff race right now. That's huge for us," he said Saturday. "We've had some good games, we've had some bad games but we are two points out of the playoffs. That's big. It's going to be a battle until the end of the season. We're home for the next two weeks and it's going to be huge for us."
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