The Winnipeg Jets have finally made it to the "hump", as coach Claude Noel likes to say, now they have to see if they can get over it.
The Jets beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-1 Sunday for their third straight win. It marked the team's first three-game winning streak since late December and it pulled Winnipeg even with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. However, the Leafs have a game at hand and will remain in eighth with the Jets ninth. But the Jets are also now just one point behind Florida for top spot in the Southeast Division.
The Jets have been in this position before, only to start losing again and fall back out of contention. That's something Noel has talked about lately, seeing his team "get over the hump".
"We weren't as sharp as we were Friday [in a win over Boston] but we were sharp around their net and scored five goals," said Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec who made 31 saves. "We finally scored some power play goals and like I said maybe we weren't as sharp as we were against Boston, but we got the job done and got the two points."
Added Blake Wheeler, who got four assists and now has 46 points to match his career high: "I think some of that [the scoring]is a little bit of luck some good bounces, but I think we're making strong plays for the most part and that's kind of the big reason we are getting some better opportunities for the most part."
The Avalanche started the game in a similar position, needing a win to remain relevant in the Western Conference playoff race. The Avs arrived in Winnipeg on something of a roll, having beaten Edmonton Friday 3-1 to give them a 3-1-1 record in their last five games.
It didn't look like either the Jets or the Avalanche were ready to give much of an effort at first. Both teams came out sluggish with multiple missed passes and just 12 shots on goal split evenly between them after the first period. The Jets also couldn't score on a four-minute power play in the first when the Avs Paul Stastny was called for high sticking.
Not scoring on that power play "was a bit scary," Noel said after the game.
The penalty kill should have given the Avs a lift, but it was Winnipeg who came out strong early in the second. Evander Kane scored less two minutes into the period to give the Jets the lead. Bryan Little added another goal two minutes later thanks to a bad clearing attempt by Erik Johnson who put the puck right on Little's stick as he stood in front of Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov.
The Avs came back with Swedish rookie Gabriel Landeskog scoring on a power play. That gave Colorado some life and it looked briefly like they would mount a come back. They fired 20 shots on Pavelec during the period, compared to just eight for the Jets.
But Kyle Wellwood ended the Avs surge by poking the puck past Varlamov after he stopped a shot by Kane.
The third period was all Winnipeg with the Jets getting power play goals from Little and Andrew Ladd. That ended the Jets woeful run of going 13 games and only scoring twice with the extra man.
Just about everything worked for the Jets Sunday. Not only did their power play finally connect, but the players on their top lines also earned multiple points. Along with Wheeler's four assists, Little got two goals and Ladd, Kane and Wellwood each had a goal and an assist. And Dustin Byfuglien got two assists.
As for Colorado the loss ended what had been a good streak.
"It's tough," said Avs forward Matt Duchene who played his first game after being out more than seven weeks with a knee injury. ".I think we played a pretty good hockey game. I think we carried the play in the second period. But they're a great team. It's a big loss this time of the year."
Added Varlamov who made 20 saves: "I have to be better."
Avs coach Joe Sacco said his players just didn't look ready to play.
"Overall we just weren't good enough in all areas of the game," he said afterward. "I don't think we had everybody here on deck tonight. In a big game like that, I would have expected a little bit more intensity from more guys."
Things could get better for Winnipeg. The Jets have six more home games coming up at the MTS Centre where they have been dominant for much of the season.
But Noel cautioned that now that the Jets are near at the hump once again, the true test will come when the team has to hit the road again. The Jets are 11-17-4 on the road, something that will have to change if Winnipeg has any hope of making the playoffs.
"We know the home stands are good and they have been good, but eventually the hump is going to get created and it will happen on the road," he said. "And that's going to be the elephant in the room. We are going to have to deal with that. Because eventually if we do well on the home stand it's going to come down to how is our performance going to be when it gets greasy?"