For months, Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel has stuck to his target of generating 96 points and making the playoffs. But on Monday, for the first time, he seemed less certain.
"I would like us to get 96 or 97 points and I still think we can. But I'm not sure we are going to," Noel said after the Jets practised in preparation for a game against the New York Islanders on Tuesday at the MTS Centre here. "But can we be a playoff team? I think we can be, but time is running out."
On paper the Jets are still in the running for a playoff position, with games this week against the Islanders, Minnesota Wild and Boston Bruins. And the team has had a pretty good few days, beating the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs to pocket four out of a possible six points in the past week. But a closer examination reveals just why Noel is uncertain.
The Jets beat Toronto soundly but they were badly outplayed by Washington and only won it in a shootout after getting some lucky bounces to tie the game. Winnipeg also did not look good Saturday during an 8-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That loss still stuck with Noel on Monday.
"I've had games like that before and it's hard trying to find an answer as to why [it happened] It was really disappointing to me that game," he said. "We've got to try to find some resolve or answers and I'm not sure that they'll work but we'll see."
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who was hung out to dry by his teammates most of the afternoon in Pittsburgh, could only shake his head Monday when asked about the game. "It's unacceptable, it's unacceptable," he said. "Of course it wasn't fun, it wasn't fun at all to play that game."
Noel said his biggest frustration is that the team has come close to a playoff spot only to see it fall away just as quickly. After the Jets beat Washington, Winnipeg had 58 points and the team was just three points out of leading the Southeast Division, which guarantees a playoff spot. But now, heading into the NHL's games Tuesday, the Jets are seven points behind the Florida Panthers for top spot in the division. The Jets are also 10th overall in the Eastern Conference, four points back of eighth-place Toronto, which holds down the last playoff spot in the conference.
"The disappointing thing for me is we were at the hump and can't get over the hump," Noel said. "That's the frustrating thing for me, trying to get us over that hump."
Heading into Tuesday, one of Winnipeg's biggest problems is it has played more games than just about every other team in the East – 57 games. That's two more than Florida and one more than Washington, their two biggest rivals in the Southeast Division. The Jets have also played at least one more game than every other team in the conference except the Ottawa Senators, who have played 58, and the Carolina Hurricanes at 57.
"That's eventually going to catch up to you somewhere," Noel said.
Scoring has also been a recurring problem. Even including the five-goal outburst on Saturday, the Jets have averaged less than two goals a game since the start of 2012. The last time Winnipeg scored five goals was Dec. 17, when it beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-3. And Winnipeg has only scored five goals or more six times this season. In total, Winnipeg has scored 139 goals this season and allowed 161 for a differential of minus-22. No team above Winnipeg in the standings has a higher differential.
"We don't score too much. It's hard to play that way. It's really hard and sometimes it's taxing on your team," Noel said. "There's no margin for error."