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'This city might BURN DOWN...' Playoffs? Jets fans would go wild (in a good way)

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It's the right answer, of course. The Winnipeg Jets are supposed to live in the here and now and spit out clichés about their next game being their biggest game, about taking it one game at a time and blah de blah, blah.

But the big picture -- the one that comes into focus when the team allows itself to think beyond tonight's matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers -- can also serve as a powerful motivator. And so when a squad piles up three straight wins to feed an already-rabid fan base, well, just imagine how good it feels to those at the centre of it all. Imagine how much fun it is to come to the rink, to hang out with the guys in the dressing room, to...

"Right now, it's just plain fun to LIVE here," said Jets forward Tim Stapleton. "It's fun to walk around this city. These fans are so loyal and to see them and the passion they have and to see them being happy... it carries into everything. It's definitely more fun coming to the rink and enjoying the game.

"I think about the playoffs all the time. All the time. Aside from a few of the guys that came from the Blackhawks (Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien) and a couple others, most of us haven't played in the playoffs. We want to experience that and that's a motivation, knowing the support we have. We know what it would be like to play here if we made the playoffs.

"This city might burn down. It would be awesome."

Now, to suggest the Jets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the last week -- and to attempt to connect the dots to captain Andrew Ladd's declaration that the team's best players had to rise up after a loss to the New York Islanders -- might be a little dramatic. In fact, when we asked Chris Thorburn if we were jumping to too many conclusions with that theory, the gritty winger didn't hesitate.

"Yeah, I think so," he said with a grin. "It's simple: As a team, we knew we had a chance to win that game (against the Islanders), but we didn't have our best performance. We understand we've got to limit chances against us and capitalize on ours. And against the Islanders we didn't capitalize. Now it seems that when we get those chances we're burying them."

But the timing of Ladd's declaration, and how the Jets have responded, does seem to be more than a coincidence. The Jets have scored 12 goals in their last three games, with the Top 6 of Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov, Kyle Wellwood accounting for all 12 and racking up 29 points combined.

And to hear Stapleton tell it, the postmortem after the Islanders' loss didn't include heated arguments or grand statements. Instead, it was all about rallying. Live in the moment and maybe, just maybe, the spring will bring what they are all chasing: playoff hockey.

"What happened after that game wasn't a panic thing, it was a professional thing because we knew it was a game we should have had, especially at home," said Stapleton. "We've taken an approach lately that we have to hold ourselves accountable, but we're staying positive about it. It's that time of the year where you can't allow negativity to creep in.

"But (Ladd's) our captain and I think what he said was a very important point. Other guys step up at times and your third and fourth lines can chip in once in awhile, but your leaders have to be your leaders. Like he said, it's the right time right now."

But the margin of error is still so thin. The good vibe that was emanating from the locker-room on Monday could go sour as soon as tonight against the Flyers or Thursday when Tampa rolls into town. And that's why many of this team's experienced voices are pushing to prevent the highs and lows from becoming too dramatic.

"We've got to stick with it, because once you get too comfortable about being on a roll it turns on you and you're right back to being a team that's struggling," said defenceman Mark Stuart. "We need to continue to do what we're doing: learn from these three games but not be satisfied with it."

And then this from Stuart, when asked if the Flyer game will determine whether the Jets are the 'real deal' or not:

"I think we're the real deal," he said. "I believe in this team."

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2012 C1

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