Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tailgating teams targeting Jets

Standings have changed but team's philosophy hasn't

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It's an important and valuable lesson for anyone racing headlong toward a destination: focus on what's ahead, of course. But always remember objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear.

Actually, for the Winnipeg Jets, check that: the objects in the rear-view mirror ARE exactly as close as they appear. In fact, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres -- considered fading blips in the Eastern-Conference playoff picture as recently as 10 days ago -- are back in the race and now tailgating the Jets' behinds like a NASCAR driver.

Yes, where last Thursday's game against the Florida Panthers was the next 'biggest game of the year,' the NHL playoff race is now so juicy and involves so many characters the focus has shifted to the Sabres, who face the Jets tonight at the MTS Centre.

The Sabres, fresh from a 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks Saturday night in B.C., have now won three straight and are 6-2-2 in their last 10 to move to within two points of the Jets with a game in hand.

And the Lightning, who looked like a mess in a 4-3 loss to the Jets two weeks ago, have won four straight and are 7-3 in their last 10 and are also within two with a game in hand.

Ahead of the Jets is Florida, who won over Ottawa Sunday 4-2 to go four points up on Winnipeg.

"I don't look at anybody in the race," said Jets coach Claude Noel after Sunday's practice. "I don't target anybody, I don't look at anybody because this thing is just going to go day-to-day. It becomes a topic for you every day... 'Ooooo, maybe it's them. Oooo, maybe THEM. Where did they come from?' Where do you stop? It makes no difference really. We just have to win. You look at Ottawa, you look at Florida, you look at a lot of things but at the end of the day you're no farther ahead. You're still dealing with the same thing: you gotta win. So let's win.

"...It becomes about your will down the stretch. You have to really pour everything into what is on the ice."

After today's game against the Sabres, the Jets will face Western-Conference opponents in their next three -- next Thursday-Friday in Vancouver and Calgary before Dallas comes here -- and then finish the regular season with 11 of their final 12 against Eastern-Conference rivals, including seven versus Southeast Division opponents.

"There's a lot of teams that are playing pretty well right now and they're making headway on us," said Blake Wheeler. "The race is getting tight and there are a lot of teams putting their name in the hat right now.

"You can't get too worried about it. Teams are going to win, that's the nature of it. We just have to go out there and take care of business on our own each night."

Wheeler admitted he's watching a ton of hockey right now and checking the scores and standings often. But he hasn't started playing the game where he roots for one team over another in order to help the Jets' playoff chances for two reasons:

1. There's still too many teams in the race right now and; 2. That kind of math can make a guy's head hurt.

"That's too much," he said. "A week ago at this time we weren't talking about Buffalo or Tampa Bay and now they're right there. It's that time of the year where you've got to be aware of what's going on around you. At the same time, this doesn't matter if we don't win. If we're laying an egg and not taking care of business on our end, then teams can lose all they want, but we're not going to make the playoffs."

Just for the record, not EVERYBODY in Jetsville is all-consumed by the race. Veteran Kyle Wellwood doesn't watch a whole lot of TV and he and his fiancée spend most of their spare time with their 11-month old son. And so when he punches the clock at the rink, it's all hockey, all the time.

After that...

"Once I leave the rink, hockey is over," said Wellwood. "You get enough of it here, you look at the schedule and are focused on that. But when you leave here you don't want to care about it any more.

"When I was younger I guess it was more of a focus. But now that I'm a little older and I've been through it I know just to focus on your own team and getting us to the point where we can make it."

But don't let that answer fool you. Wellwood, like everyone wearing a Jets logo these days, plays the game for exactly these kinds of scenarios.

"All I know," he said with a grin, "is this next stretch is going to be a lot of fun."

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

defenceman zach Bogosian is out, ex-moose Hodgson returns C3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2012 C1

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