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A lot can change in the National Hockey League in one week.
After giving their Central Division rival Nashville Predators a 5-0 beating on March 23 to clinch a playoff spot, it looked like the Winnipeg Jets had turned a corner and were on their way to playing their best hockey heading into the most important time of year.
Sure, it may have only been one game, but after what was arguably their best performance of the season, how could expectations not rise?
‘We’re going to win these last four games so we don’t have to worry about that’ — Patrik Laine, on the Jets finishing first in the Central
The win also put the Jets in prime position to win their first division title in franchise history. It gave them a four-point cushion on the Predators while having a game in hand, as the Jets had seven games left compared to Nashville’s six.
But thanks to the Jets dropping three straight games at home this week, the expectations are no longer soaring, and the Central Division race will likely come down to a photo finish. The St. Louis Blues (42-28-8) have won five out of their past six and are now just two points back of the Jets (45-29-4) with both teams having four games left. Meanwhile, the Predators (44-29-6) are tied at 94 points with the Jets, but only have three games remaining.
Did the Jets simply take their foot off the gas pedal after the Nashville game since their playoff ticket was already punched?
“Not on purpose,” Jets forward Bryan Little said Sunday before the team’s optional skate at Bell MTS Place. “I mean, you try to play the same way, play hard every night. But that was a really emotional game. An intense game. We ended up clinching, so once you get that spot, maybe not purposely, but you do take a breath and maybe that shows in your game a bit and you’re playing games against teams that are still fighting and playing super desperate. So yeah, maybe not purposely, but maybe.”
It definitely showed in Saturday night’s 3-1 loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens. It was obvious which team was fighting for their playoff lives and which one wasn’t, as the Habs outshot the Jets 43-24. The good news for the Jets is, despite their recent play, they’re still in the driver’s seat in the Central Division. If they can win three of their final four, it won’t matter what the Blues or Predators do — the Jets will be division champs. Another positive is, despite the fact the Jets are coming off an incredibly disappointing week at home, they appear to not have lost their confidence.
“We’re going to win these last four games so we don’t have to worry about that,” Patrik Laine said about the team’s concern of losing the division crown. “Let’s just try to win every game and we’re going to finish first. That’s it. Then, we don’t have to worry about what St. Louis or Nashville are doing. Just win these last four games and that’s going to be enough for us.”
Perhaps more importantly, this four-game road trip will give the Jets an opportunity to get back to their winning ways before the playoffs begin.
“I think it’s good to still have these four games before the playoffs,” Laine said. “I think we can still work on a lot of things, but I think, overall, we’ve been playing good hockey. Obviously, not these last three games, but before that. It’s still good that the playoffs aren’t starting tomorrow, so we can still have a little bit of time before the playoffs to clean up some things and try to work on our game.”
With four games in six nights, the Jets face a hectic schedule to close out the regular season. Little added it might be a good thing for the team to have a week on the road together before the post-season.
“It’d be easy to get pretty negative and start questioning our game going into the final stretch before (the) playoffs. But we’re trying to stay positive and trying to get better,” Little said. “These last few games haven’t been easy. We’re playing a lot of teams that are playing desperate and are playing their best hockey. We’re just trying to get our level up before playoffs start.”
The Jets hope their levelling up begins tonight, as they take on the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. The Jets will close out the season playing the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.