- Craig Custance
For the entire month of March, the Winnipeg Jets didn't have one practice. Not one, according to coach Claude Noel. It was one of the scheduling quirks of a lockout season filled with them, and it's a stretch most teams around the NHL have had to deal with.
"At the 42-game mark, we had played 42 games in 82 days. We'd played the most in the league," Noel said when we chatted Monday afternoon. "[In March], we played 16 games, every other night."
And they did it as members of the Southeast Division located in Manitoba, the lingering result of the move from Atlanta.
Over the previous four days, they finally got their break. A team picture Friday, a complete day off Saturday and two solid practices to sharpen their game after a three-game stretch put them back in the playoff hunt.
On Thursday, the Jets beat the Florida Panthers 7-2 for their third consecutive win to give them 44 points this season. That's good enough for the No. 9 spot in the Eastern Conference, and, thanks to another loss by the fast-sinking New Jersey Devils Monday night (0-6-4 in their past 10 games), the Jets might be the only legitimate bubble team left in the East with a shot at making the playoffs and shaking up the current top eight.
The Buffalo Sabres are 10th and four points outside of a playoff spot and have played more games than any other team in the East. There's just one team outside the top eight remaining on the Sabres' schedule: the Jets.
So it might rest entirely on Winnipeg to crash the current group of eight in the East.
"It's a great situation to be in," said Evander Kane to reporters in Winnipeg after practice Monday. "There's something where there's a lot of pressure. For me, it's something I enjoy. It's nice to be playing for something."
It's nice, and it's a rarity for this franchise. The Jets/Thrashers have exactly one playoff appearance in franchise history, and it was a four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers in 2007. There are players from that Thrashers team who have gone on to enjoy success elsewhere, including Pascal Dupuis, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Johan Hedberg and Kari Lehtonen, but there is just one player left on the Jets roster who experienced it firsthand: Jim Slater.
And yet, when things go south in Winnipeg, occasionally there are rumblings that there is still too much Thrashers DNA left in the Jets in their second season away from Atlanta.
Key players such as Kane, Zach Bogosian and Alex Burmistrov were all high-profile Thrashers draft picks. Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey were high-profile Thrashers free-agent signings. Captain Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien were high-profile Thrashers trades.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is building long term, and, at some point, some of the Jets talent he's been collecting the past couple of drafts will form a homegrown Jets nucleus in which the Winnipeg Way will be engrained. But guys such as Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba aren't ready yet.
Right now, there's still a mix of old Atlanta philosophy and the new when it comes to roster construction and team building.
So it's fair to wonder whether that's still a barrier to success in Winnipeg during the short-term.
"There's something to be said for vision, establishing a foundation of work ethic and a foundation of how you conduct business and providing stability to that. And having a plan," Noel said.
He was careful not to criticize any previous regimes in the organization, instead preferring to focus on the way the Jets do things now. But he hit on some of the major criticisms of the Thrashers when he noted what makes a successful organization.
Too often, in Atlanta, there wasn't a vision. The work ethic came and went depending on who was coaching. First-round picks were rushed to the NHL, setting development back multiple seasons. Noel learned the value of developing talent at the correct pace in his time with the Nashville Predators' organization. In his four seasons leading the Milwaukee Admirals, he had three 100-point seasons and made two trips to the Calder Cup finals as the Predators developed their talent through the proper steps.
And stability? That's relatively new, too. After Bob Hartley was fired, the Thrashers cycled through coaches who included Don Waddell, John Anderson and Craig Ramsay. This is the first time in his NHL career that star Kane has had the same head coach for consecutive seasons.
So with all that come bouts of inconsistency, as the Jets have shown this season. It also means confidence can be difficult to maintain because the only way to truly develop it as a group is to have consistent team success.
The Jets are working on that, and Noel credits an improved mental state for the Jets' success before their long weekend, one that ends with a huge home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.
"The big thing is we're playing with more confidence," Noel said. "As silly as it sounds, when we were losing, we weren't playing that great. We didn't have a lot of A-games; we had very little scoring. Then we lacked confidence both individually and collectively."
That started to turn with a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, and the confidence grew from there. The Jets were able to capitalize on a portion of their schedule that was light on playoff teams, with wins over the Flyers, Sabres and Panthers. They can build on that this week against the Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes before a huge game against the new York Islanders on Saturday.
Four of the Jets' final six games are at home, a place that has one of the bigger home-ice advantages in the league. Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who has the talent to carry this team to the playoffs if he gets hot, has a 2.31 goals-against average and .914 save percentage at home. That's solid, but if the Jets are going to make the playoffs he might need to be even better.
There was a point this season when Winnipeg had 16 games remaining and the Jets realized they had been successful enough that they controlled their own playoff destiny. Then they went and lost five straight. That's a sign of a team still learning how to win, still evolving as an organization.
Things have stabilized, and the Jets have positioned themselves with an opportunity to further distance themselves from the failures of the past. To show that Jets DNA is more powerful than Thrashers DNA.
These remaining games could signal huge growth for a franchise. Or signal that there's still work to do in Winnipeg.