The Winnipeg Jets enter their post-Olympic schedule when they welcome the Phoenix Coyotes to the MTS Centre Thursday night.
With the Jets (28-26-6) hovering around the playoff line, just two points shy of the Dallas Stars for the final wild card spot in the West, Winnipeg understands the importance of each one of the 22 remaining games.
The Coyotes (27-21-10) stand in the way of the Jets playoff hopes as they also sit two points ahead of the Jets but with two games in hand. After a hot start to the season, Phoenix has cooled off of late, playing .500 hockey for the past six weeks of the regular season.
So with that, here’s a look at five things to watch for in tonight’s game:
It will be the second time this season the Jets play a Phoenix franchise that used to reside in Winnipeg more than a decade and a half ago.
Winnipeg laid the beat down on the Coyotes back on Jan. 13, in what was new head coach Paul Maurice’s first game behind the bench.
The Jets trailed first in the game, allowing the Coyotes to get on the board midway through the first period. But Winnipeg tied it up just 36 seconds later with a goal from Olli Jokinen, the first of two in the opening 20 minutes for the Jets.
Devin Setoguchi put the game out of reach midway through the third period, scoring his eighth on the power play to cap off a 5-1 win.
Winnipeg is scheduled to play the Coyotes once more after Thursday’s game, so a win would give the Jets not only a much needed two points in the standings, but an overall edge in the season series against their west rival.
Pushing for the playoffs
Remember in early January when the Jets were on the heels of a five game losing streak and the idea of making the playoffs was almost laughable?
Thanks to a 9-3-1 record in 14 games leading up to the Olympic break, the Jets have not only climbed in to the post season conversation, they’ve become one of the hottest teams in the NHL.
That’s not to say they don’t have a long way to go and getting over the hill to the glory land after the 82-game campaign will take more than the adrenaline from a fired-up coach and few lucky breaks from the hockey gods.
We all saw what happened when the Jets downed two of the NHL's top teams in Chicago and Anaheim. There was definitely a greater power at play.
Either way, the Jets will have to adopt a playoff mentality for the final stretch of the season. NHL minds suggest 95 points will be the deciding mark for making the playoffs in the West. That means the Jets will have to earn 33 of a possible 44 points left up for grabs, or in terms of a record, will have to go 15-4-3.
Buyers or sellers
Prior to the break, Maurice said he planned on using the scheduled nine-day vacation as a better opportunity to analyze the team in front of him.
With the Jets still aiming for the playoffs, the question remains as to whether the team's decision-makers will be buyers or sellers by the March 5 trade deadline.
Mark Stuart, Devin Setoguchi and Olli Jokinen are just a few of the pieces without commitments beyond this season and will most likely generate the most chatter in the next week.
Stuart is a particularly interesting case. After a slow start to the year, Stuart, 29, appears to have found his game alongside rookie Jacob Trouba.
Trouba has shown genuine appreciation for Stuart, particularly for his leadership and dedication to the team. The last thing you want to dump from your club is a team-first guy who's got the attention of the young gun that will one day lead your blue line.
But a fall off in Stuart’s play, like most bubble guys in the NHL, he becomes fair game to deal.
After what’s been an injury-riddled season for the Jets, some familiar faces are set to return to the lineup.
Depth forwards Jim Slater (lower body) and Matt Halischuk (upper body) have both been cleared to play by medical staff. Slater has missed a majority of the season while Halischuk has been out since mid-December.
With these two guys back, expect to see a shuffle on the fourth line. The additional bodies up front will put a fair amount of pressure on players like Anthony Peluso, Chris Thorburn, Eric Tangradi and James Wright.
We all know the limited ice time the fourth line receives each game, so expect some energy from the ones that get the call. If not, change is inevitable.
Post-Olympic stress disorder
It was supposed to be a positive experience, one that would help regain some of the missing confidence of Jets starting goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec.
But for Pavelec, 26, representing his home country, the Czech Republic, on the national stage in Sochi didn’t exactly prove to be that rewarding.
After sitting out his national team’s opening game against Sweden, Pavelec stood tall between the pipes in a 4-2 win over Latvia. He made saves when they counted, but allowed a weak opening goal.
Pavelec allowed 10 goals on 90 shots, and finished 2-2 in his four starts. Thus, bringing us back to the ever so exciting goalie debate in Winnipeg.
Pavelec now faces the task, albeit a daunting one, that includes getting the Jets in to the post season, something he’s been unable to do the last two seasons.
That means he’ll need to play some of his best hockey in the next 22 games. The good news: a successful run could no doubt secure Pavelec’s future with the Jets.
The bad news: failing to do so could be the last straw.