Real work begins now for Jets

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:12 AM ET

WINNIPEG - Just when you think it’s safe to look forward to a post-Christmas playoff race, the Winnipeg Jets give you pause.

Friday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins was the perfect example.

The Jets had rediscovered their mojo, we were led to believe, based on a four-goal romp over the Montreal Canadiens the night before.

That win, capping a 7-2-1 mark in their last 10, put the Jets on the cusp of the playoff cut line in the NHL East.

Another over the Pens would have vaulted them over it for the first time this season.

But that appears to be a hump, psychological or physical, the Jets can’t clear.

Friday, they tripped over it and fell flat on their collective mugs against a Pittsburgh team loaded with talent, even without Sid the Kid.

On the surface, the 4-1 loss was a thumping, an old-fashioned behind-the-woodshed schooling. The shot clock read like a lopsided football score, 39-19 in Pittsburgh’s favour.

But I’m not sure the night was as bad as all that.

And if you visit this space with any regularity, you’ll know it doesn’t make a habit of spewing apologies or excuses for the home team.

This was a spirited, 1-1 tilt through 40 minutes, the Jets looking every bit the willing and able participant.

The shots be damned — Winnipeg had more scoring chances than the Pens, but were victimized by either the brilliant work of Marc-Andre Fleury, their own bad hands or some lousy puck luck.

“Hit the post, missed the net, lost the puck,” is how head coach Claude Noel described it.

In proper order, that would describe the nights of Jim Slater (on a first-period breakaway), Andrew Ladd (twice) and Alexander Burmistrov.

“This is what I knew could happen,” Noel said. “We looked like a team that played three games in four nights.”

In the third period, the Pens skill took over, as they buried the chances when they got them, something the Jets couldn’t do.

But with all their flaws, the Jets have at least scratched and clawed their way into the NHL’s Christmas conversation.

They might not out-skill many teams above them in the Eastern Conference race, but they’ve learned the two hallmarks of winning hockey: hard work and teamwork.

If you’d wrung out the uniforms and collected the sweat after the game, the two pails would have contained equal amounts of the stuff.

And here in the ’Peg, we appreciate a blue-collared shirt with stains on the armpits as much as anywhere.

“I’m not going to sit here and criticize my team,” Noel said. “That’s not going to happen. We’ve had a good month. I’m not going to sit and judge us by this result.

“I’m not dragging this game with me, that’s for certain.”

His job, though, will be to drag the Jets up a few notches after Christmas.

And with their talent, that’s going to be a tall order.

Because as the coach well knows, the NHL’s second half is another animal.

“What you’re going to find now is the game goes to another level,” he said. “And if you can’t keep up you’re going to fall behind.”

So the next test begins immediately after the presents are unwrapped.

But looking back at that horrible start, you’d be hard-pressed to have expected much more than where the Jets are right now.

“We’ve had a good homestand, grown as a team,” Tanner Glass said. “A couple days off here, we need to check out mentally and come back ready to play after the break.”

Stage 1 of the return of the Jets didn’t turn out too bad.

Stage 2 could go either way.

If these are still the Atlanta Thrashers, they’ll fade badly, like they did a year ago.

I don’t expect that’ll happen.


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