Jets claim first in Southeast

Jets and Lightning players scramble in front of goaltender Mathieu Garon at the MTS Centre in...

Jets and Lightning players scramble in front of goaltender Mathieu Garon at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Man., Feb. 23, 2012. (JASON HALSTEAD/QMI Agency)

KEN WIEBE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:42 AM ET

WINNIPEG - There’s no doubt the Winnipeg Jets didn’t like the way things went down during the final minute of play in a game that got far more interesting than it needed to.

But at the end of the day, those same Jets are going to wake up this morning as the leaders of the Southeast Division, at least for the time being.

Thanks to a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night before an appreciative crowd of 15,004 at MTS Centre, the Jets leapfrogged the Florida Panthers to propel themselves into the third seed in the Eastern Conference standings.

“We’re in first place in our division, third place in the Eastern Conference,” said Jets winger Blake Wheeler, who had two assists. “The reason it’s disappointing is that (goalie Ondrej Pavelec) has battled so hard for us, not just recently but all year. We would have liked to work a little harder to keep him the goose-egg but whatever. It’s two points.

“We’re aware of where we’ve come from and what it’s going to take to continue this. We can’t sit back and take a photo and say, ‘We’re all set.’ It’s going to take this kind of hockey for 19 games to make the playoffs. If we let our foot off the gas for even one bit, we’re not going to make it.”

Although the Panthers still hold four games in hand, they’ve been struggling of late and the only thing that really matters to the Jets is that they’ve worked their way back above the playoff line and into the top eight in the Eastern Conference standings.

“It’s nice to be above it, but we understand we still have a long way to go,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd, who had two goals and an assist to lead the offensive charge. “We’re not going to be happy until the season is over and we’re above the line.”

With 30 wins and 67 points, the Jets are currently one point up on the Panthers, who lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, and two up on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fell 2-1 to the San Jose Sharks and slipped to ninth in the East with 65 points (but hold two games in hand on the Jets).

The Jets are certainly becoming battle-tested during the stretch drive.

“They’ve been playoff games since the all-star break. We put ourselves in that position based on our January,” said Wheeler. “What I’ve been saying all along is that if we find a way into the playoffs, sometimes you’re better off doing it that way than coasting and not playing a tough game for about 30 or 40 games.”

The Jets were looking for a strong start against a Lightning team that had won three consecutive games going into the contest and that’s exactly what they got.

Bryan Little found Ladd in the high slot at 7:11 and the captain wired his shot past Mathieu Garon for his 20th goal of the campaign.

Tanner Glass added an even-strength marker at 14:59 of the first and the Jets were clearly off and running.

During the second period, the Jets’ power play would provide a pair of goals that proved to be the difference.

First it was Ladd adding his second of the game on a deflection and then it was Dustin Byfuglien rifling his point shot through a screen and past Garon, who was pulled after giving up four goals on 18 shots and replaced by Dwayne Roloson.

The Lightning scored three times in the final period — including two in the final minute — to make it close but the Jets were doing their best to focus on the positives.

“We’re not happy about that and we’ll rectify that. It’s something else to work on,” said Ladd.

Despite the scare, the Jets have found a way to win for the fourth time in five games and have picked up nine of a possible 10 points to finally start moving back up the Eastern Conference standings.

“Everyone in the locker- room should be excited,” said Byfuglien. “It’s a lot of fun to be in the playoffs. We should come to the rink every day with smiles on our faces and ready to go to work.”

The Jets better be ready to work because the heavy lifting is just beginning.


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