The Winnipeg Jets enter a critical part of their schedule with just about everything going wrong.
The Jets have lost five of their past six games and two of their best defencemen, Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien, are out with injuries. To top that off, one of the team's best forwards, Blake Wheeler, took a puck in the throat Saturday and stayed in hospital overnight for observation. There has also been a bout of flu among players and some recent drama surrounding Evander Kane, who was called out for his poor play by head coach Claude Noel last week.
All this comes as the Jets play six games in nine days, all against Eastern Conference teams. Four of the games are on the road where Winnipeg has floundered. The first test comes Monday in Ottawa against the resurgent Senators, followed the next day with a game in Newark, N.J., against the New Jersey Devils, who beat the Jets 2-1 at the MTS Centre last Saturday. Winnipeg has yet to win the second game in a back-to-back in six tries this season. Winnipeg then faces the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers at home followed by back-to-back road games versus the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
That takes Winnipeg to the all-star break, and by then the team's hopes of making the playoffs could be determined.
"We're going to battle through this thing," Noel said after the loss Saturday. "This thing will get itself resolved. We just want to get it done sooner than later. This is the time for us to rally around each other."
Noel acknowledged that it is hard to be without players such as Bogosian, Byfuglien and Wheeler, whose status for the Ottawa game is questionable. "When you lose players with weight on our team, Wheeler included, it's tough to replace," he said. "You have no choice. You have to play the hand you are dealt and this is the hand we're dealt and you play it to the best of your abilities."
The Jets had been in playoff contention for several weeks thanks to a remarkable run in December in which the team played 12 games at home and went 10-3-1, piling up 21 points. But the Jets started January losing three out of four on the road.
One of the Jets biggest problem lately has been the team's play in the third period. While the Jets have scored 43 goals in the first period this season and 40 in the second, they have just 27 goals in the third. That's the lowest third period total in the NHL. Opponents, meanwhile, have scored 34 times on the Jets in the first, 39 times in the second and 50 in the third.
"The third period hasn't helped us," Jets forward Jim Slater said.
Penalties also continue to hurt the team. Winnipeg has been short handed 179 times this season, third highest in the league. The team's penalty killing isn't bad, at roughly 83 per cent, but opponents have still scored 31 power play goals, putting Winnipeg 23rd in the NHL on that score.
The Jets are also in the bottom third of the league in faceoffs, winning less than half, and in total wins with 20.
Heading into the NHL's slate of games Sunday, the Jets were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 45 points. That left the team three points out of a playoff spot, but the Jets have played more games than the two clubs ahead of them, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. And Noel has predicted that Winnipeg will need about 95 points to make the playoffs, meaning the Jets have to generate 50 points over the remaining 38 games.
Winnipeg might have a chance to win the Southeast Division, which would guarantee a playoff spot. As of Sunday, Florida led the division with 50 points followed by Washington at 48 and Winnipeg at 45. But winning the division won't be easy. The Jets have split two games with Florida so far this season. They have also beaten the Capitals once and lost twice, including once in overtime.
All of which means Winnipeg is facing a daunting couple of weeks.
"They are all important [games]and we've got six more in a tight stretch," Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey said. "We'll need to win a couple of them to get ourselves feeling good going into the break."
Added coach Noel: "This isn't the time to start fragmenting all over the place and I don't believe that's happening. Our group is real good. We'll rally around it we'll get it going and we'll get back to work. We're not far off, we're right there and we'll just keep going through."