Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)
The Winnipeg Jets became the latest victim of the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, getting thumped at Consol Energy Center, 8-4. It marked the second time the Penguins have scored eight goals on the Jets this season, having won 8-5 on Feb. 11.
Jets coach Claude Noel didn’t seem to have answers following the loss, basically giving credit to the Penguins for playing well. When asked if the Jets’ difficulty containing Pittsburgh was a product of poor forward or defense play, Noel basically threw up his hands.
“Forward issue or defense issue? You figure it out,” Noel said to the media following the game. “You watched the same game as I did. You answer the question. You can look at it and dice however you want. They played well, they have a good team, and they scored goals. … They’re dangerous and we had trouble containing them.”
Truth be told, Winnipeg has had trouble beating the NHL’s elite all season. While much has been made of Winnipeg’s home dominance and road struggles, the Jets actually may have a bigger problem in that they are just 7-14-2 against the top third of the league. Take away their 3-1 season series win over the Flyers, and they are just 4-14-2 against the other eight top-10 teams (Blues, Rangers, Penguins, Canucks, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Devils and Bruins). The other top-10 team, Nashville, hosts the Jets Saturday for their only meeting of the season.
Luckily for Winnipeg, that’s one of just two games against those teams — the other being at home against the Rangers on March 28 — the rest of the way. The Jets currently sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Washington and two behind Buffalo and have four difficult games before closing out with four of five against teams out of the playoff picture.
Their next game is Friday in Washington, a pivotal four-point swing game that could get them right into the thick of the race for the No. 8 seed. They then travel to Nashville, followed by home games against playoff-bound Ottawa and the Rangers. And while the road has been unkind to them this season, the Jets see bottom-feeding Carolina, Tampa Bay and the Islanders — along with a match-up against Southeast-leading Florida — away from home in the next four. They then close out the regular season hosting Tampa Bay.
The Jets’ struggles against the NHL’s top teams are certainly a red flag, but for now the goal is making the postseason. A win in Washington and success against teams in the bottom of the standings would go a long way toward accomplishing that. Do that, and the rabid Winnipeg fans will be happy to see how their Jets fare against the top teams in the postseason.
Southeast Division Notes
Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes’ paper-thin playoff aspirations hang in the balance Wednesday with the Panthers coming to Raleigh. Carolina is seven points behind Washington with nine to play, so losing is not an option. Unfortunately, the Panthers are playing their best hockey in years, having won five in a row. The Hurricanes could get back Joni Pitkanen, who has been out since early December, but will be without Andreas Nodl, who was injured Sunday on a hit by Winnipeg’s Zach Bogosian that resulted in the Jets defenseman receiving a game misconduct.
Florida Panthers – The Southeast-leading Panthers could extend their division lead to seven with a win in Carolina Wednesday. Florida has won all four meetings with the Hurricanes this season, and knocked off the Flyers Tuesday with a 2-1 win in Philadelphia. The Panthers have struggled to create offense the last two games — they had just 13 shots against the Flyers and 17 in their 3-2 shootout win Saturday over Buffalo — but have not allowed more than two goals in six games. With backup Scott Clemmensen earning the start and win Tuesday, expect No. 1 goalie Jose Theodore in net for Florida against Carolina.
Tampa Bay Lightning – With the signing of Sebastien Caron complete, the Lightning reassigned goalie Dustin Tokarski to Norfolk. Tokarski struggled in his first extended look in Tampa Bay, going 1-3-1 with a 3.44 goals-against average and .879 save percentage, but he will rejoin the Admirals as they’re in the midst of an 18-game winning streak — an AHL single-season record.
Washington Capitals – The Capitals are still awaiting the return of star center Nicklas Backstrom, who didn’t skate Tuesday but will be back on the ice Wednesday in an attempt to return from a concussion. Backstrom has skated for a week without any complications, so his return could come before the end of the regular season or in time for the postseason if Washington can hold on to a spot.
Follow Cory Lavalette on Twitter at twitter.com/corylav