By: Mike "BCMike" Fraser
Edited By: Mike "The Deuce" Bailey
As old Jack Burton says: “When some eight foot tall monster backs you up against a wall and asks you if you’ve paid your dues, look that guy straight in the eye and say, ‘ya the cheque is the mail’”. That’s about how I’m feeling lately as the new look February Jets roll through their home stand looking for redemption and that playoff light at the end of the tunnel.
The Jets in January were backed up against that wall and have been grinding their way back out of the hole they dug for themselves ever since. With all of their weapons returning to the ice they have gone from being a struggling club trying to arrest a slide to an up and coming club once again challenging for eighth in the conference and first in the division. They’re climbing the proverbial ladder, in what seems to be a ‘two rungs up, one rung down’ style, proving that when it comes to being a Winnipeg Jet sometimes guts and hard work need to be a substitute for talent.
It also helps that the stars have aligned, cursing our closest competitors with losing streaks of their own that have helped the Jets close the gap. Toronto has fallen ungracefully from sole possession of eighth place and is trying desperately to recover from what seems to be their annual mid season tailspin out of the playoffs. Washington has also has had to contend with a massive implosion that seems to go right to the heart of the team. This leaves us with the improbable Florida Panthers as division leaders in a division that is underwhelming at best.
Due to a sort of play-off wormhole effect, if the Jets where to take the division lead from the Panthers this would vault them into third seed overall in the eastern conference. Many see this shortcut as being the best avenue for the Jets to make the playoffs, and with the Panthers starting to come back down to earth they are probably right. The Jets are currently tied with Florida at 65 points, but the Panthers have three games in hand, which keeps them in top spot. However the Panthers have lost their last three games and are playing sub 500 hockey in February, which makes them potential low hanging fruit if the Jets can keep winning.
Winning of course fixes everything. If the Jets can string together another few wins and their competitors continue to slide, our playoff chances can increase exponentially. So the question now becomes ‘can the Jets continue to win’? The promising news is that a few key players are starting to find their game in Winnipeg. Blake Wheeler looks like a guy who can carry this team on his back, while Evander Kane is starting to look like the pure goal scorer we were all hoping he could be. Of course after Pavelec’s performance against Philadelphia and Mason’s solid performances in backup, goaltending appears to be a foundation from which this team will make its playoff push.
The Achilles heel of the Jets going forward will definitely be defensive zone responsibility. The goaltenders can’t do it all and night after night the Jets end up chasing the opposition around in their own zone. The Jets blue line was constructed to be up in the play and contributing to the offense on a run and gun team, unfortunately defense wins championships and defensemen caught up ice don’t contribute to defense. If the Jets were to do anything at the trade deadline to help push them forward it would be acquiring either A) A first line centre (not going to happen) or B) A journeyman stay-at-home defender. A stay-at-home defender could be a calming influence on the blue line and a valuable quarterback on the power play.
The Jets also desperately need to find a winning formula on the road. The road record is so abysmally bad that I’m not sure that if they made it into the play offs that they would have any chance of winning without finding a way to fix their problems on the road and fix them fast. Again winning goes a long way, as locking down a division title would give the Jets home ice for the first round and likely the second.
So as we come close to the end of January the Jets are once again knocking on the door, just as they were at the end of December. It seems like all is forgiven across Jets nation and the calls to become sellers have diminished. The stretch is officially upon us and the ladder up into post season contention is still fraught with peril, but even though I never officially gave up hope, I definitely have more faith in a playoff appearance than I did 30 days ago.
Remember, for the Jets this year there is no easy stairway to heaven, just a hard climb up Jacobs ladder.