Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tensions mount in Eastern bloc

Jets going up against rivals

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It's another busy three games in four nights for the Winnipeg Jets before they'll catch a breath over the NHL's all-star break next week.

And it's also a full cross-section of Eastern Conference opponents.

Tonight at the MTS Centre, the Jets face the No. 8 Florida Panthers (6 p.m., CBC, TSN 1290), who share the Southeast Division lead with the Washington Capitals, each with 52 points.

The Jets, No. 10 and three back with 49 points after a Thursday win here against Buffalo, head to a pair of road games Monday in Carolina against the No. 15 Hurricanes and Tuesday in New York against the conference-leading Rangers.

"Another big game for us," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd after an optional skate Friday at MTS Iceplex. "It's a chance to inch a little closer to Florida and climb the standings a little more."

The Jets will see the Panthers four times from now to the end of the season.

"They've got a lot of offensive punch, I think," Jets defenceman Mark Stuart said. "They've got some guys who can put the puck in the net. We're going to have to be on top of our game defensively and making sure we're not turning the puck over.

"We'll take the good from last night and also work on some things we weren't too happy about. We'll try to put together back-to-back efforts, which we haven't done in a while."

Winnipeg is 3-6-0 in January and has struggled this month to keep in touch with the conference playoff line.

"This is a four point-game in our division," said Jets coach Claude Noel. "We can clearly see who's ahead of us and what we have to do."

Noel said that Friday's optional practice was designed to be a "rest situation today so we can pour everything into the game against Florida."

The fans will appreciate that, given the roller coaster of the last two weeks. Some January losses have caused widespread public angst while the wins, such as Thursday's against the Sabres, have an obvious soothing effect.

"I think it's something you learn when you've been around for a while," Ladd said. "There's always going to be highs and lows around the team. You have to find a way to stay even-keeled and understand that there will be tough times and you're not going to go through a whole season where everything's going to be chipper. You've got to be able to handle it."

Stuart smiled at the subject.

"We're up and down, too," he said. "I think we take it even harder. We notice the fans but I think it's more importantly ourselves, we're not happy with a few of the efforts we've put forward. We've done some good things, though, had some good games sprinkled in there and like I said, it's trying to put together back-to-back efforts.

"I think our expectations of ourselves are always going to be higher."

The Panthers, 21-15-10, lost 3-1 Friday night in Chicago.

Tonight, the Jets figure to get a step closer to their hoped-for lineup. Defenceman Zach Bogosian , who has missed five games with a lower-body injury, has skated strongly for three days and said Friday he was ready to play.

"I feel good," Bogosian said. "I've had a couple of good days of skating. It's up to the coaches now."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 C2

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