The Winnipeg Jets’ team bus stopped at the intersection of Dreams and Fears early Tuesday morning, as they pulled into Washington after a clutch 2-1 win at Buffalo, their entire season now laid out before them in one tidy divisional battle against the Capitals.
The Jets wanted a shot at the Southwest Division title, and at least a playoff birth? Here it is, boys. Right there for the taking.
They feared coming away with neither? Well, let’s talk at about 9 p.m. CT Tuesday night, and we’ll see what’s left of the Jets’ season.
“(Tuesday’s game) has been circled on our calendar for a long time now,” captain Andrew Ladd told media after the game in Buffalo. “We wanted to put ourselves into a position where it was going to be a meaningful game and we’ve done that. So here it is.”
Ladd has been an absolute beast of late, doing his best Jarome Iginla impression from the 2003-04 Calgary Flames. He failed to get at least a point in Buffalo for the first time in eight games, but still fought Steve Ott in the second period and has generally been carrying this club at the most crucial time of the season.
That is what captains do, in case you're in one of those towns where your captain leads in a more cerebral way. They lead by example, and that's what makes Ladd one of the best captains in the game today.
The Jets are now 6-0-1 in their last seven games and on a serious charge, getting the necessary offensive input last night from a pair of "secondary scorers" in Antti Miettinen and Aaron Gagnon. On one of those nights when the big guns go silent, contending teams always get help from a couple of foot soldiers.
It was the difference between life and death in this playoff run for Winnipeg, and right now they're still alive.
"It's just important to get any scoring," Jets coach Claude Noel said in his post-game address. "I thought we played a really solid game. We could have got scoring from a lot of people, so whether it's secondary or any way, we had a lot of work cut out for us with (Sabres goalie Jhonas) Enroth."
Meanwhile, it was back-to-back wins on March 21-22 in Winnipeg that started the Capitals on their way. They hammered Winnipeg by scores of 4-0 and 6-1 at the MTS Centre, and have gone 13-2-1 since.
You might think that would be enough to leave the Jets behind, but give Winnipeg some credit. They've hung around in the NHL's weakest division, and a could make the jump from ninth place all the way up to the No. 3 seed in the East.
The schedule does not favour Winnipeg, which has played one more game than each of the top eight teams in the East, and two more than Montreal. Tonight, while the Jets are battling the smokin' hot Capitals, the teams they are trying to catch have far easier foes. The sixth-place Islanders are in lowly Carolina, while the seventh-place Ranges are at the Florida Panthers.
The Jets have two games remaining: in Washington, and at home Thursday against the struggling Canadiens. Then, they sit and watch the season play itself out, a vantage point that will only be excruciating if Winnipeg wins out.
A loss Tuesday and the Jets are effectually cooked.
"We'd like to have played a little better in the last 10 minutes (in Buffalo), play in their end a little, but (goalie Ondrej Pavelec) bailed us out a couple of times," Ladd told the Winnipeg Free Press. "Now we've taken that step and (can) focus on the biggest game of the year for us."