WINNIPEG - How low can they go?
Well, it would take a particularly awful Saturday around the league, but such is the tightness of the Eastern Conference right now that a loss against the Jets here on Saturday evening could see the Leafs plunge as low as 10th. (Of course a win could also see them rise as high as sixth, but safe to say the playoff race is on.)
Most importantly though, the Leafs looked awful at times in a pair of losses since Christmas, the defeat in Florida and an overtime loss in Carolina in which they squandered a 3-1 lead in the third period.
"The standings are so tight - we know it, you guys know it, everyone outside of the rink knows it," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We can't afford to be giving away points."
It won’t be easy ending that brief run of ineptitude here in Winnipeg where the Jets have been on fire at home, gathering 19 points in December, the vast majority of those at their wild MTS Centre.
“We’ve got enough invested in the game and the magnitude of what’s involved in the game for us to get motivated,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “We’re tied with these guys and we’re going to battling with this team all year. They’re going to be wanting to be doing like us, to stay in the playoffs and stay above the line and keep that thing going.”
At the start of December, the Jets didn’t resemble anything close to a playoff team, stuck in 13th in the Eastern Conference. But heading into Saturday’s action, the Leafs, Jets and Devils each have 41 points, one more than the Capitals.
“Everyone understands where we are and these games against teams in the group that we’re in are important,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd. “You’re either able to jump ahead or they’re able to jump ahead of you. We’re trying to distance ourselves from that group and we’ve got to keep this thing rolling.”
Saturday's game continues the Winnipeg tradition of pro hockey on New Year's Eve, a ritual that dates back to the AHL's Moose and the original incarnation of the Jets. Puck drop is 6 p.m. local time to accommodate Hockey Night In Canada, which sends in it's top crew of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson to call the action.