Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice played coy when asked if he planned any lineup changes for his team's game against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday.
Forty-eight hours after his team officially had been eliminated from the playoff race in the West, Maurice talked about putting the best possible lineup on the ice. The Jets owed it to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Maurice remarked, who are in a battle with Toronto for the final playoff spot in the East.
That's why veteran goalie Ondrej Pavelec was going to start and the NHL debut for 24-year-old Michael Hutchinson of Barrie, Ont. would have to wait for another day.
Yet, it appeared Maurice planned to send a clear message to Evander Kane that the Jets coaching staff and management brass were not happy with the play of the speedy forward down the stretch.
It appeared that Kane was going to be made a healthy scratch because long after most of his teammates had finished the morning skate, there was Kane being put through the paces usually reserved for players not performing that night.
This has not been an easy time for the Jets, dealing with a third consecutive spring without a postseason since the team was relocated in Winnipeg from Atlanta.
Missing that playoff feeling
Some of the team's core players like Bryan Little (482 career NHL games), Tobias Enstrom (480) and Kane (321) have yet to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
Is there anything Maurice and the coaching staff can do to make the last four games feel like the playoffs?
"We can't fake that," Maurice said. "That only comes from getting there. That kind of intensity and pressure we have to find a way to manufacture it in the regular season. That will be a key for us next year, to get wired up to that level and a way we go.
"We've been talking a lot about [rookie defenceman] Jacob Trouba and the wonderful year that he's had. That's the difficult thing because [a trip to the playoffs] would certainly help him in his conditioning program in the summer.
"You can't understand how much more intense the playoffs are until you get in one of those games. You can watch it on television and talk about it, but it's not the same."
The difficult part for the Jets is that after Maurice took over in mid-January, Winnipeg went on an 11-3-1 run. After a 3-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Mar. 1, the Jets woke up the next morning to find themselves in a three-way tie with Dallas and Vancouver for the final playoff spot in the West.
But the Jets whimpered to the finish line after that, going 4-8-4 in their last 16 outings.
Maurice was one of four coaching changes this season. Here is a glance at the before-and-after records for each team.
The fall guy, for now, is Kane. His production has dropped off this season. After hitting the 30-goal mark in 2011-12, he followed up with 17 goals in the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule a year ago, that same amount he has in 60 games in the 2013-14 campaign.
With or without Kane, the Jets promised to give the Maple Leafs a tough test at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
"I think you motivate yourself in any way you can," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "It's a big game for them tonight. It would be fun to beat them in their own building. It's a big game for them.
"At the end of the day, you want to have that mindset that once you touch the ice it's a full on sprint until you get off. Then you do it all over again."
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