By: Adam Wazny | Tuesday, April 23
Buffalo Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth reacts as Winnipeg Jets' Evander Kane a goal by teammate Antti Miettinen during the third period of their game on April 22. The Jets won 2-1 and staved off playoff elimination once again. (David Duprey/Associated Press)
Tonight's game against the Washington Capitals is the biggest moment for local hockey fans since the Atlanta Thrashers were rebranded as the Winnipeg Jets nearly two seasons ago.
There's no overselling it. There's no need to oversell it.
Flat out, straight up, no doubt, whatever absolute importance you want place on it -- tonight's game in Washington (6 p.m.) is the season for the Jets. Beat the Capitals in regulation and Winnipeg (24-19-3, 51 points) moves one point ahead and into top spot in the Southeast division.
More importantly, if you look at the complete picture pertaining to the playoff chase, it puts pressure on the other teams currently without an 'X' beside their name in the Eastern Conference standings.
Those clubs are the Ottawa Senators, the New York Rangers, and the New York Islanders. Like the Capitals, they all have a game in hand on Winnipeg and also like the Capitals, the Senators and the Rangers sit one point up the Jets; the Islanders are two points ahead.
When Winnipeg concludes its season against Montreal Thursday, those four teams will still have games left to play. So the Jets goal is simple: win their final two games and put pressure on those around them to do the same. Yes, Ottawa has been on a bit of a slide of late (they've lost two straight), but with three games left they still hold control.
Winnipeg's only course of action is to make those games matter.
And it starts tonight in Washington.
The obvious takeaway from the win in Buffalo Monday night was that the Jets are moving up a weight class with the Capitals. The current Southeast leaders are 13-1-2 since rolling into Winnipeg and spanking the Jets in back-to-back games a month ago, and can wrap up the division title (and the third overall seed in the conference) with a regulation victory over the Jets.
They have something to play for, too.
Beating Washington in Washington won't be easy. First off, the impact of not having Zach Bogosian available: who draws the Alex Ovechkin assignment? Bogosian (concussion) is the Jets' No. 1 shutdown defenceman and his size and speed would automatically be thrown out there against the league's most dangerous player (Ovechkin has 20 goals in his last 18 games; 30 overall this season).
The Great-8 responsibility should fall to the Ron Hainsey-Grant Clitsome pairing, and they will be in tough to limit the chances against. Winnipeg won't have last change, either, so Capitals head coach Adam Oates should be able to find a matchup he likes.
Second, the glaring concern from the Buffalo game was how little offensive pressure the Jets mounted after the Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler line. Evander Kane looks like he's playing hurt and his linemates -- Olli Jokinen (high ankle sprain) and Kyle Wellwood (hand) -- are out for the remainder of the regular season. Nik Antropov probably draws in for Wellwood, but what kind of offensive impact can he have after missing eight games with a lower body injury?
Names like Aaron Gagnon, Antti Miettinen and James Wright found the score sheet Monday. A second straight night of contribution from the unlikely sect can only help.
And finally, while the Jets do have a win in Washington this season (a 4-2 victory Jan. 22), the Capitals are a different team.
They've beaten the Jets three straight since that game, with goaltender Braden Holtby allowing just one goal in those contests. Expect him to get the start for the Capitals again.
Tonight should come down to goaltending, but not the name in the Washington net. This may sound unfair considering the offensive firepower discrepancy between the clubs, but Winnipeg netminder Ondrej Pavelec simply needs to be better than Holtby. There's really no way around it; Pavelec has to be razor-sharp.
If he's not, the Jets playoff dreams won't just be in trouble. They'll be done