The cold drizzle and dark clouds outside matched the gloomy mood inside the MTS Centre on Tuesday as Winnipeg Jets players and coaches gathered for a light morning practice.
The night before, the Ottawa Senators crushed whatever realistic hope the Jets had of making the playoffs with a wrenching 6-4 victory. The Jets had come back from behind three times during the game and tied the score with less than three minutes to go in the third period. But just 24 seconds later, Ottawa forward Daniel Alfredsson scored what proved to be the winning goal.
Winnipeg has 78 points with just six games remaining. While making the playoffs is still mathematically possible, no one among the Jets really believes it can happen anymore.
"Today's a hard day for our players and the staff, too," Jets coach Claude Noel said Tuesday. "I got home about 11:25, or whatever it was [after the game] and turned on the TV and there's a replay of the games, our game. Then I come in this morning at 8:30 and there's the replay again. Please. It's painful."
Noel said he and the players were all disappointed mainly for Jets fans who have become some of the most passionate in the NHL. "You want to help them. You want to be part of it and pay them back for [their support] And that's the disappointment," he said.
He added that the team has to try to keep focused on its remaining games, including Wednesday against the New York Rangers at the MTS Centre. "Today's a tough day but that's why we're in the business. We're in the business of competing and we're going to continue to put our foot forward."
Several Jets players echoed Noel's disappointment and hurt over the loss. "Sometimes the hockey gods are cruel. That's what we learned from [Monday] night," forward Blake Wheeler said. "It's heartbreaking almost. You put everything you have into it and when you see the end result you scratch your head and say, 'That's not the way it's supposed to go.'"
The Jets will look back on this season as one of many missed opportunities. The losses on the road, especially against weaker teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens (twice), hurt more than anything. The Jets' road record is 12-21-4, compared with 23-12-4 at home. Noel said repeatedly during the season that Winnipeg would need at least a .500 record on the road to make the playoffs. The team didn't come close.
Perhaps more troubling, the Jets haven't made much progress in the past three seasons despite relocating from Atlanta. The former Atlanta Thrashers had 76 points at this time last year and 78 two years ago. The Thrashers finished out of the playoffs in both years.
There is still hope the team's young core – Evander Kane, Alexander Burmistrov, Zach Bogosian, Ondrej Pavelec – will develop into a playoff contender. "I think we definitely have the team in here to get into the playoffs," forward Bryan Little said. "I think we all believe that. If we had five or six better games than we did, we could be in a different position."
Veteran Kyle Wellwood, 28, agreed but said some upgrades are needed. "There certainly has to be upgrades," he said. "But these guys are young, and as they get older they'll learn more and start to play better. You've got to find a way to upgrade spots here and there as your team grows."
For now though, Noel has set more immediate goals as the season winds down. "We are going to try and win games, that's what we are going to try to do," he said. "We're in the business of winning."