The excitement around the Winnipeg Jets continued over the weekend after a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators Saturday.
The Jets are now a perfect 2-0 since returning from the Olympic break and Winnipeg (30-26-6) will look to ride their momentum as they focus their attention on the New York Islanders tonight.
The Islanders (23-32-8) are all but out of the playoff race, with experts predicting a very slim mathematical chance of playing beyond the regulated 82 games.
It’s been a disappointing season for New York when you consider just one year ago they threatened an upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, losing in a close series that went six games.
The Islanders are now given the role as spoiler, with the last 20 games being used to regain some lost confidence while attempting to stall any post season plans their opponents may have. The next opponent: a Jets team with still plenty to lose.
With that, here are five things to keep an eye on in tonight’s game:
Not exactly paradise
The Jets were winners in the first and only game between these two teams this season.
Winnipeg connected for three goals in the second period to edge the Islanders 3-2 on Nov. 27. Jets defenceman Mark Stuart, a player that’s garnered a fair amount of talk and debate about his stock heading in to the March 5 trade deadline, scored his first of the season to kick things off for the Jets.
Andrew Ladd and Devin Setoguchi also scored for the Jets.
It was only the Jets second win (2-3-2) over the Islanders in seven games since returning to Winnipeg in 2011. Of those games, five were decided by two goals or fewer and three needed extra time to determine a winner.
With the playoffs still in sight, Tuesday’s game is one the Jets need and one they can’t afford to give up. The week only gets tougher, with a talented L.A. Kings headed to town Thursday.
It will be debated for the remainder of the season: the question as to whether or not the Jets can really make a run at the playoffs.
The present would suggest the Jets are trending in the right direction. They’ve become more reliable in the defensive zone, losses have been few and far between, and the best guys are playing like their best guys.
The past, however, favours another direction for the Jets. In the last two years, Winnipeg has made a late season run only to fall a few points shy of the playoffs. What evidence is there to suggest this season will be any different?
The Jets will get a chance to buck that trend in this final stretch. Only two points out of the final playoff spot in the West, Winnipeg once again controls its own destiny.
Win and you’re in, lose and it’s another disappointing end to a promising season.
Who needs Johnny? The Isles do
When John Tavares went down with a season-ending knee injury during the Olympics, many believed that was the end for a struggling Islanders team on the outside of the playoff line, barely looking in.
New York opened the post-Olympic schedule with a win over the Toronto Maples Leafs, one of the hotter clubs prior to the break, beating them by a score of 5-4 in overtime.
The last two games, however, confirm the public’s original perception. The Islanders have allowed 11 goals in their last six periods of play, seven more than the four they’ve scored.
And both losses have come against mediocre teams in New Jersey and Florida. Bottom line, the time is right for the Jets to strike, as a victory over the Isles has never been riper for the picking.
With the trade deadline just a day away and the Jets playing with more confidence than ever, it’s looking less and less likely that the Jets will make any significant moves by 2 p.m. Wednesday.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that they shouldn’t, though. Winnipeg has six players set to become unrestricted free agents in the off-season, and it’s tough to suggest all will be offered extensions.
“I’ve got other things to stress about,” answered Chris Thorburn, of the six players without a contract for next season, when asked about the whether he was worried he could be dealt at the deadline.
“That’s definitely out there but at the same time, I’m going to worry about the Islanders. We’ve been going pretty well. We’ve come a long ways, especially in the last month or so. This is a good group that you want to go to battle with so to see a change would be unfortunate but at the same time [the NHL] is a business and we understand that.”
Other players still without contract for next season include forwards Setoguchi and Olli Jokinen; Stuart and Adam Pardy on defence; as well as goaltender Al Montoya.
If Jets’ management decides to stay put at the deadline, the chance to get anything in return for these guys is out the window. Winnipeg will be left to either sign them to extensions, or allow them to test the open market.
When Jets coach Paul Maurice takes his spot behind the bench Tuesday he’ll be quietly celebrating a career milestone.
The game marks the 1,100th for Maurice, spanning over 16 seasons that have included stints in Hartford, Carolina, Toronto and now Winnipeg.
Maurice enters the milestone with a career record of 471-460-168. Maurice has seen mostly success with the Jets, posting an 11-3-3 record since taking over in mid-January.
Many have credited “Mo Magic”, a name coined by the public, for the Jets’ good fortune.
Either way, the new man in town has made believers out of his players and the city that cheers for them. But how long will it last?
Only time will tell.