Record: 52 – 20 – 10
They'd love to be pulling away from the pack — but members of the Winnipeg Jets say their margin for error remains small despite the on-ice success they've enjoyed so far this season.
Sure, the Jets appear to be flying high by leading the Central Division and sitting second in the Western Conference with an impressive 25-11-7 record, including 5-0-1 since the Christmas break. But a quick glance at the National Hockey League standings shows the Jets have just a 10-point cushion on a playoff spot. Minnesota and Anaheim are currently on the outside looking in with 47 points, while Chicago and Calgary are right behind them at 46.
"We haven't separated ourselves from anyone. Our division, and the conference, is really strong this year. If you want to get to where we want to get to, at no point can you sit back and feel content and pat each other on the back," captain Blake Wheeler said Monday. "A bad week or two and you're on the playoff bubble, probably. We've got to keep pushing forward."
And that's why this week is a big one. After playing Tuesday in Buffalo, Winnipeg heads to Chicago and Minnesota for a pair of back-to-back games before enjoying their league-mandated five-day break next week; players will likely scatter in many directions for a quick in-season holiday.
"It's a time of the year you don't want to get ahead of yourself. There is quite a bit that can happen still," centre Bryan Little said Monday. "That's what kinda keeps us motivated right now. Just how good some of the other teams are playing right now. We have to keep winning games, and we're doing that."
Winnipeg is still without top centre Mark Scheifele for at least another month, and energy forward Brandon Tanev is likely going to miss at least another week. Adam Lowry is also dealing an upper-body injury and couldn't play in Sunday's 4-1 win over San Jose. His status for Tuesday is unknown. That could mean a second consecutive game for rookie Jack Roslovic, who made his season debut Sunday.
"It's exciting to see him get a chance here. He's played so well with the Moose this season. I think if he keeps working hard he's going to get that opportunity," said his good friend and fellow 2015 first-round draft pick, Kyle Connor.
Wheeler played some shifts in the third period with Roslovic as coach Paul Maurice shortened his bench while protecting a lead. They appeared to have instant chemistry, with each setting the other up for a quality scoring chance.
"He's got a ton of speed. He's a horse," Wheeler said Monday. "In our conditioning tests, I think he finishes first in camp every year. He's just a special guy like that. Made a couple really nice plays (Sunday). I enjoyed being out there with him. He's a smart hockey player. Made some nice reads. Just another good young player to add to our group."
It's worth noting the Jets called up Brendan Lemieux from the Manitoba Moose Monday, which may indicate that Lowry is likely to sit. Lemieux would be an extra healthy forward, in that case. Winnipeg also returned defenceman Tucker Poolman to the Moose now that they have seven other healthy blue-liners, with the recent returns of Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom.
"We're handling the adversity we're going through right now well," Little said. "Having Scheifs out, a couple guys out of the lineup that are a big part of the team, we're still finding ways to win so that's really big. But we can't look too far down the calender right now."
He said while players are naturally excited about getting some personal time away from the ice next week, it's important to finish up strong.
"We're going to try end it on a good note. I think the break is coming at a pretty good time. We can use that to get guys rested up and healed up and back in the lineup, We're going to try and win all these games we have left," he said.
Wheeler said the mindset doesn't change this week despite having the player break looming — with one small exception.
"Well, you have to pack a little differently for this road trip," he said Monday. "That's what's given us success this year. We've gone day by day, game by game, and try to find ways to get better every single day. We haven't looked too far ahead, haven't overlooked any opponents. That's a good thing. It keeps you driving. It keeps you wanting more success. It's something we haven't had a lot here. The more you get, the more you want."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.