It's there, so close that as the Winnipeg Jets make the final turn into the homestretch they can see the finish line and the long-coveted Stanley Cup playoff spot just on the other side.

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Opinion

It's there, so close that as the Winnipeg Jets make the final turn into the homestretch they can see the finish line and the long-coveted Stanley Cup playoff spot just on the other side.

Yes, with seven games left on their 2014-15 regular-season schedule, the Jets are closer to their first playoff birth since the franchise put down roots here four years ago. But, to paraphrase that old Jerry Reed country tune, the Jets still have a long way to go and a short time to get there before they can start making playoff arrangements.

Montreal Canadien netminder #35 Dustin Tokarski looks for the puck between Michael Frolik's legs as the Winnipeg Jet screens the play in the third period at the MTS Center Thursday night.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Montreal Canadien netminder #35 Dustin Tokarski looks for the puck between Michael Frolik's legs as the Winnipeg Jet screens the play in the third period at the MTS Center Thursday night.

 

In fact, most still believe the muddied Western Conference playoff picture won't become crystal clear until the last day of the regular season, when the Jets play host to the Calgary Flames.

"We've got a tough schedule down the stretch," Jets winger Blake Wheeler said the other day. "We're playing good teams (their opponents' combined winning percentage is .622), but when we make the playoffs we're going to be playing good teams, anyways. That doesn't deter us from what we're trying to do."

Note the subtle change in Wheeler's answer there: Just a month ago the Jets would talk about if they make the playoffs. Now, it's when and that speaks of the growing confidence for a crew that, though ravaged by injuries, has still managed to remain in the playoff discussion while going 12-2-2 in their last 16 games at the MTS Centre.

Here's a look at what remains as the Jets head for the finish line:

GAME 76 vs. Chicago

WHEN: Sunday, March 29, 6:30 p.m.

THIS SEASON: Jets are 3-0-1 vs. Chicago this year.

NOTABLE: Coaches often try not to over-think this stuff, but consider -- Michael Hutchinson, who has struggled of late, has been in the net for all four games vs. the Blackhawks this year and sports a .961 save percentage and 1.23 goals-against average. Ondrej Pavelec, meanwhile, is winless (0-3-2) in his career against Chicago with goals-against average of 4.61 and an .867 save percentage. Hello.

FYI: Patrick Kane continues to lead the Blackhawks in scoring with 27 goals and 37 assists, despite missing the last 12 games and being lost for the season with a fractured clavicle. Kane was tied with Washington's Nicklas Backstrom for the NHL scoring lead when he was injured. But the Hawks are 8-3-1 without him in the lineup.

 

GAME 77 vs. N.Y. Rangers

WHEN: Tuesday, March 31, 7 p.m.

THIS SEASON: Jets are 1-0-0 against the Rangers, winning a shootout 1-zip at Madison Square Garden back on Nov. 1.

NOTABLE: Martin St. Louis has chewed up and spit up the Jets/Thrashers franchise during his career. In 76 games played he has 27 goals and 56 assists for 83 points. He had an eight-game point streak against the Jets snapped in their 1-0 loss back in November.

FYI: The Rangers became the first team to clinch a playoff berth with their 5-1 win against Ottawa on Thursday. And they've been doing it without their superstar netminder Henrik Lundqvist. He's expected back in the lineup either today against Boston or Sunday versus Washington, but in his absence -- he's been out since Feb. 2 -- the Rangers are still 18-4-4.

GAME 78 vs. Vancouver

WHEN: Saturday, April 4, 2 p.m.

THIS SEASON: The Jets are 0-1-1 versus the Canucks, losing 5-2 last Monday and 3-2 in OT in early February.

NOTABLE: Eddie Lack, the former Manitoba Moose puckstopper, is 4-1 vs. the Jets over the last two years with a .921 save percentage. This marks the end of the Jets four-game homestand that began with the win over Montreal. After this, Winnipeg has just one game left at MTS Centre -- the regular-season finale April 11 vs. Calgary.

FYI: The last time the Jets beat the Canucks at the MTS Centre was Jan. 31, 2014, in a 4-3 win. The game-winning goal was scored by Devin Setoguchi, one of his 11 that season.

 

GAME 79 @ Minnesota

WHEN: Monday, April 6, 7 p.m.

THIS SEASON: The Jets are 2-1-1 vs. the Wild, winning twice in OT, losing once in OT and falling 3-2.

NOTABLE: The Wild are 24-6-2 in the 32 games since acquiring Devan Dubnyk (heading into Friday's game against Calgary). Since Jan. 15 they have a goal differential of plus-42, first in the NHL (96 goals for, 54 goals against). In the Wild's previous 25 games before the trade to land Dubnyk, Minnesota ranked last in the NHL with 88 goals allowed and ranked 27th in the NHL in goal differential, at minus-26.

FYI: In the last two seasons the Jets and Wild have played nine games, with eight of them decided by one goal -- including three OT games and one shootout. The one exception was a 6-4 Jets' win last season that featured a late empty-net goal by Toby Enstrom.

 

GAME 80 @ St. Louis

WHEN: Tuesday, April 7, 7 p.m.

THIS SEASON: Winnipeg is 1-2-1 vs. St. Louis this year.

NOTABLE: The Jets have not won a game in St. Louis since their rebirth, going 0-4 at the Scottrade Center. The last win for the franchise in St. Louis came on Oct. 8, 2009 in a 4-2 decision backstopped by Ondrej Pavelec and with Evander Kane scoring the winner.

FYI: This is the last of back-to-back situations for the Jets this year. The Jets are 5-3-0 in the first game of a back-to-back and are 3-2-3 in the second half.

 

GAME 81 @ Colorado

WHEN: Thursday, April 9, 8 p.m.

THIS SEASON: Winnipeg holds a 3-0-1 record against the Avalanche this year.

NOTABLE: Colorado isn't officially eliminated from the playoff picture yet, but is on life support. The Avs trail Winnipeg by 10 points in the chase for a wild-card spot, have just eight games remaining and San Jose, Dallas and Calgary between them and the Jets.

FYI: Jarome Iginla scored in Thursday's win over Vancouver, notching his team-leading 26th goal of the year and his 1,219th career point. That moved him into a tie with the legendary Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens for 40th place on the NHL's all-time scoring list.

 

GAME 82 vs. Calgary

WHEN: Saturday, April 11, 2 p.m.

THIS SEASON: The Jets have lost both games to the Flames this year, falling 4-1 and 5-2.

NOTABLE: Winnipeg's last win against the Flames was their regular-season finale last April in Calgary. Fresh face Michael Hutchinson won his second career game and the Jets got goals from Carl Klingberg and Evander Kane, both since traded, as well as Paul Postma (injured), Michael Frolik and Blake Wheeler.

FYI: Mark Giordano set a new single-season career high for points (48) with an assist on Feb. 25 in New Jersey. That was also his last game of the season as it was discovered afterward he had suffered a torn bicep tendon. The Flames (heading into Friday's game against Minnesota) have managed to go 7-3-3 without Giordano.

 

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