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Zach's back, but frustration is building

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THE Jets stormed into Thursday's practice ready to write a new chapter -- but still with lots of questions, no easy answers, and a plot line to solve tonight against the Florida Panthers.

Zach Bogosian is back, so that's something.

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The defenceman hasn't played since Nov. 15 against the Flyers, which was also the last time the Jets won at home. He wrenched his groin in that one, sat out a month, and watched his team veer off the road.

That was frustrating, he agreed. But on Thursday morning, he practised hard, felt good, felt ready to go. "Getting a few practices under my belt was a big thing," Bogosian said. "I've felt good for a couple days now, so it's healing good."

If Zach is indeed back, then that should help ease some of the load on the Jets defencemen. Bogosian is pencilled in to be paired with Tobias Enstrom, split now from his longtime partner Dustin Byfuglien. Meanwhile, the big 33 was skating next to Adam Pardy at Thursday's practice -- a curious pairing, given the differing weight of their usual minutes, and an experiment head coach Claude Noel said is just part of the process of searching for wins.

"Buff can be an offensive guy and Pardy can be a defensive guy. They can play with size, get it stopped and just defend," he said. "If both of them are caught up the ice all the time, that won't work. So I think it can work from that standpoint, but we need control from both of them too. If they were both up the ice, that wouldn't last very long, I'd be down there talking to Charlie (Huddy)."

Speaking of talking, that part's ongoing. There was Blake Wheeler last week, after the loss to the Dallas Stars, saying it was time to stop blowing smoke. That's just the tip of the talk as the Jets try to sort it all out. "That's where the leaders in this room really step up," Bryan Little said. "I don't really care about what guys say to the media. I care about what guys talk about in the locker-room, how guys act, what guys say to each other on the ice."

From Little's vantage, the Jets' struggles have played out in a pattern, one that's stubborn and not simple to fix. "We're trying to," he said. "We don't go into a game thinking that we're gonna play good in the first and take it easy some of the game. You go into the game trying to play your best, and play the same every night. Right now, we're just trying to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it."

And to be fair, the answers may not lie in the Jets room. There's the questions of raw personnel to consider, and how they are used -- every player, after all, has a limit to what they are able to do. So the next rung on the ladder is the coaches, and they're talking a lot too -- even as the spotlight cranks brighter and every month is a little less forgiving than the Jets' first couple of seasons.

As for Noel, the coach said he is at times tempted to go into a full-on vent at the media. "My job is to find solutions," Noel said. "Problems become more complex. You try to find solutions... I don't remember quite like this, but I view it as a good challenge. I think I can handle this thing. We're navigating, we're trying to find solutions. It's not easy, but it's not easy for a lot of people."

Perhaps especially tough is the hardness of the numbers. If the point is playoffs, then that is slipping away at Mach 2 now that they're faltering against the West's choking competition. The Jets are 6-12-4 against Western teams, and 3-11-3 against their Centrl Division opponents, a stat so cold it should freeze any playoff talk firm.

Is there a silver lining? For instance, what if playing against the stout West is making the Jets better? Mark Stuart has a blunt answer. "Who cares?" the defenceman said, when a reporter posed that question. "You gotta win. If you're a better team at the end of the day but you're still .500, who gives a s--t? We got to be better, and win."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2013 C2

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