Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ultimate proving ground the road

Fan-fuelled success no longer in equation

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No ifs, ands or buts about it, now is the time for the Winnipeg Jets to win on the road.

If they do, they just might be a playoff team. If they don't, they won't get in. Simple as that.

Sunday night's third-period choke and 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes made road success even more imperative if the Jets are to play beyond the regular season.

They can't pack you up and take the entire 15,004 on the road but they're going to have to figure something else out if this story is going to have a happy ending.

No one needs any convincing that the Winnipeg Jets are a good hockey team at home. Strong enough to be a playoff team and maybe even make some noise in the tournament.

But this tale has a monster hiding in the closet and that's the Jets' inability to get points on the road. Just 11 wins away from the MTS Centre against 23 in the building built for Canada's 7th NHL franchise.

With 10 games left on the schedule, the Jets have three left at home but seven away and if they're going to actually finish this mission, they'll need to win at least four and maybe as many as six on the road. For a team that has looked its worst this season when playing out of Winnipeg, it's a tall task. Insurmountable? No. But with missed opportunities like Sunday's it's getting more difficult by the game.

Leading 3-2 heading into the third, the Jets were on the verge of tying the Washington Capitals at 78 points for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth. But a lack of offensive finish combined with defensive dereliction left the Jets gasping and pointless by night's end.

This will go down as a loss that will keep Claude Noel and his Jets awake this summer if they should end up missing the playoffs.

Straight ahead is a Tuesday-night road game in Pittsburgh against Sydney Crosby and the Penguins, then it's down to Washington for a season-making or season-breaking showdown on Friday. Then a dreaded back-to-back match in Nashville against the Predators.

Sunday's loss minimized the margin of error and somehow the Jets must find a way to win two of three on the road this week if this playoff talk is going to continue to be based in reality and not just buzz like a gnat without hope.

So many of Winnipeg's players have made strides this season to get this team to this point, but now when the crowd has grown hush to hear the most poignant words, they've gone mute. Blake Wheeler must be heard from. Bryan Little has got to have a voice. Evander Kane's pistol must boom once more.

It's not enough for a few players who have been down this road before to carry the load. There must be a collective effort. Certainly there are nerves in the Jets' hands and so many sticks have grown quiet. That won't do.

The Jets have been fuelled by their fans all season. But they're going to have to go it alone now.

Maybe the road will turn out to finally be a welcome respite for the Jets. The pressure in Winnipeg can be felt in the building and the house almost groans under the weight of the fans' want.

They want their team to win. They want their team to make the playoffs. They want to keep watching a season they waited for so long to arrive.

It's been a lot to ask of these players, to shed the skin of the Atlanta Thrashers and be reborn as the Winnipeg Jets. Expectations have grown heavy.

But the playoffs are for teams that turn adversity aside and win no matter the circumstances. Teams that get it done no matter the setting. Teams that don't, well, they're just also-rans.

So what are you, Jets?

Winnipeg is waiting for your answer.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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