Twenty games remaining. That's all that stands between the Winnipeg Jets and the unthinkable - a playoff berth and perhaps even a division crown - in their inaugural season back in the Manitoban capital.
Heading into Thursday night's action, the Jets - with 65 points in 62 games played - currently find themselves in a tie with Florida for top spot in the Southeast Division, while also sitting tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference with Toronto. And even though both the Panthers and Maple Leafs hold games in hand over their closest rival in the standings (four and two games, respectively), it's the Jets who are soaring of late, poised to surprise the pundits by potentially making the playoffs during a season that has captured the imagination of all Winnipeggers grateful to see their Jets back where they belong.
By and large, this is the same team that managed a mere 80 points last season under the guise of the defunct Atlanta Thrashers, good (or should I say, bad) for 25th in the league. In 11 uninspiring seasons in Georgia, the Thrashers never won a single playoff game; the team made only one playoff appearance after capturing the Southeast Division in 2006-07, only to get swept in four games by the New York Rangers. No fans, no ownership and, ultimately, no hope left Gary Bettman with no choice but to move the fledgling franchise to Winnipeg.
You can bet Bettman's glad he did.
At the heart of the renaissance in Winnipeg is their rabid fan base. We all know how passionate Canadians are about their hockey, and Jets fans are no exception. But unlike other Canadian entries in the league, the Jets faithful have rallied together as a community to whole-heartedly support their team and become the loudest home crowd in the league. Perhaps it's out of fear to ensure they never lose their beloved Jets again, or in part because of the ecstasy of having pro hockey return to their humble town. Or maybe it's because they've built up so much emotion and angst over 15 years of NHL deprivation, that they are acting out the only way they know how - by rocking the rafters at the 15,000-seat MCS Centre night after night.
One thing's for sure: Jets fans are providing their team with a home-ice advantage that even has the Red Wings taking notice. Winnipeg currently has the eighth-best home record in the league (18-9-3), already amassing one more home victory than the team had all of last season in Atlanta. Compare that with an 11-17-4 road record, and you start to get a real sense of the impact of home-ice advantage on the club's fortunes this year.
But if Winnipeg is going to qualify for this year's postseason, it's their next 10 games that will likely determine their fate.
The Jets are in the midst of an all-important eight-game home stand right now, which has started off well enough; in three games, the team has picked up five out of a possible six points already to help their climb up the Eastern Conference ladder. Considering their home-ice dominance, and with seven of their final 10 games on the road, now is definitely the time for Winnipeg to create some space between themselves and their competition. A .500 record over this stretch, likely won't cut it when the postseason rolls around.
If they are going to have a chance to shock the hockey world and qualify for a chance to win Lord Stanley's mug, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec holds the key to their success. The 24-year-old Czech-born Pavelec has been a beast for the Jets at home, posting solid numbers (14-8-3, 2.25, .926) at the MCS Centre, while amassing a career-high 22 wins already this season. And when you consider the recent play in goal in both Washington and Toronto, Pavelec offers head coach Claude Noel a distinct advantage over some of his closest competitors vying with Winnipeg for those final coveted playoff spots.
But it isn't just the play of Pavelec recently that has people talking playoffs in the 'Peg. Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien are all getting hot at the right time in leading the Jets to their current four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1). Wheeler, the team's leading scorer with 47 points, has nine points in his last four games, while captain Ladd seems to be regaining his lost scoring touch in recording three goals over his past two.
In reality, it's been the return of Byfuglien, who missed all of January due to injury, that has this team going places. The undeniable team MVP, Byfuglien is once again making his presence felt, currently riding a four-game point streak, while producing 11 points over his past seven games. He's the straw that stirs the drink in Winnipeg, and if he can continue to stay both hot and healthy, his could ultimately prove the difference for the Jets down the stretch.
All things considered, the time is now for Winnipeg to take advantage of their current home schedule if they are going to make it to the postseason. While the MCS Centre will undoubtedly be rocking this March, just imagine what the building would sound like in April.
Photo credit: Getty Images