Jets look to wipe away Thrasher memories



OTTAWA — In all the excitement over the Jets return to Winnipeg, it’s easy to forget this team is still the Atlanta Thrashers, transplanted.

And so along with the requisite hockey baggage moving northwest to Manitoba, comes the Thrashers baggage: one playoff berth in franchise history (2007, swept by the New York Rangers), huge turnover of personnel, little blips of contention that usually don’t pan out.

In the fall of 2010, the Thrashers were the talk of the league for bolting out of the gate hard, led by newly acquired forward-turned-defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, fresh off a Stanley Cup season with Chicago, and by the coaching of veteran Craig Ramsay. The week before Christmas, the Thrashers were leading the Southeast Division with 43 points off a 19-11-5 start, only to crash and burn thereafter en route to a 34-36-12 record, 12th overall in the Eastern Conference.

And so while the entire country rejoiced in the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg during the off-season, it is clear halfway through the 2011-12 season that the addition of a seventh team in Canada isn’t going to beef up national playoff content overnight.

Even after the Jets dropped a 2-0 bombshell on the Senators Monday, there were just two Canadian clubs with any kind of playoff security, surprising Ottawa in the middle of eastern playoff group and the Vancouver Canucks at the top of the western heap.

The other three eastern Canadian entries were on the outside looking in: Toronto ninth, Winnipeg 10th, the Montreal Canadiens 12th. In the west, Edmonton is still a year away and Calgary will have to get on its horse to have a shot.

There will be many more “must wins” before we can make sense of it all, but the Jets certainly understand the daunting task — somehow get back to playing the kind of hockey they were in December (10-3-1), minus three of the players that helped get it done. Namely, Byfuglien, forward Blake Wheeler and defenceman Zach Bogosian, all missing from the lineup on Monday.

Byfuglien is nursing a knee injury, Wheeler was hit in the face with a puck on Saturday against New Jersey and Bogosian suffered a lower body injury in a Jan. 10 game versus the Boston Bruins.

Already challenged to score goals, averaging 2.5 goals per game, the Jets are into prevent mode minus three of their top eight scorers. Wheeler leads the Jets with 32 points, Byfuglien has 24 and Bogosian, 19.

Until they return, the Jets will try to play tight defensively and eke out low scoring wins. Mission accomplished against the Senators. Head coach Claude Noel was especially pleased his team escaped the “black cloud” of third period collapses that have plagued Winnipeg.

“I thought our speed was really good,” said Noel after his team handed the Senators their first shutout of the season, a 2-0 Ottawa loss. “This was a good game for us, we made them earn every inch of ice.”

Jets goaltender Chris Mason, author of the shutout, called his team’s effort “the perfect road game.”

“We’ve been looking for that, the last little while,” said Mason, who faced 25 Ottawa shots, 14 in the third.

The Jets don’t have the luxury of starting slowly in games, thanks to losing five of their previous six games.

“It only takes one game to get out of a funk,” centre Bryan Little had said before the game. “Hopefully it’s (Monday night). Everyone is kind of sick of losing right now.

“We want to put a stop to it before we get out of the (playoff) picture.”

Forwards Evander Kane and Kyle Wellwood spoke similarly about the need to turn this around quickly or risk being a seller at the trade deadline. Those pre-Jet Thrashers were horrible in January and February, killing what looked to be a playoff lock three months into the season. There’s a Thrasher tradition the Jets would rather not carry on.

Urgency comes in different forms. Noel sent a message to Kane by slashing his ice time in a couple of recent games.

Now in his third NHL season, Kane handled it well. Against Ottawa, Kane got his minutes back and for his trouble received a fist full of Chris Neil after the Senators didn’t like Kane’s retaliation hit on Erik Karlsson.

“I don’t know if we’re worried about it,” Kane said of the Jets plight, “but we’re aware what’s going on, every game for us we have to have that mentality as though it’s a playoff. You have to let that pressure motivate you to be better and bring your A game, every night.”

The Jets had their ’A’ game Monday, as for the Senators — not so much.

Ottawa Citizen

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