Winnipeg Jets: Will They Finish First in the Southeast Division?

Eric McKelvieSenior Writer IMarch 31, 2013

WINNIPEG, CANADA - MARCH 24: Blake Wheeler #26 and Andrew Ladd #16 of the Winnipeg Jets congratulate teammate Bryan Little #18 (centre) for his goal during first period action in a matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 24, 2013 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
Marianne Helm/Getty Images

Despite losing four of their last six games, the Winnipeg Jets are still in good position to make the playoffs.

The Jets lost 3-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday but are still four points clear of Carolina for the Southeast Division lead. As such, Winnipeg holds the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

However, the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils are seeded fourth through seventh and all have more points than Winnipeg. Should the Jets fall to second in the division, they would find themselves fighting for one of the last playoff spots.

With next season’s realignment set to alter how teams are seeded and move Winnipeg west, this is an opportunity for the Jets to take advantage of a weak division and secure home-ice advantage for the first round.

At this point, the two teams that appear to pose a threat are the Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. They may be four and five points back of the Jets, but the Hurricanes have three games in hand and the Capitals have two.

The Jets do have the advantage of an easy schedule down the stretch, however, which would make anything but a division title disappointing.

Of their 12 remaining games, just three are against teams that currently hold a playoff spot. Two games are against the Montreal Canadiens, while the other is against the New York Rangers, a game which will take place Monday at Madison Square Garden.

The Hurricanes, on the other hand, will play nine playoff teams in their final 15 games, including two games each against the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.

The Capitals don’t have it much easier, with seven games against playoff teams over the course of their final 13 contests.

With that in mind, expectations are growing in Winnipeg and rightly so.

The Jets have shown great potential thus far this season, playing tight games with some of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.

Captain Andrew Ladd and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec have both had a huge impact and will need to continue to be at their best for the Jets to make the playoffs.

Ladd has led by example all season, whether it’s scoring a timely goal, laying a big hit or making a smart defensive play. Pavelec has put his early-season struggles aside, giving the Jets an opportunity to win nearly every game this month.

They key to success down the stretch will be continuing to improve on special teams and finding more consistency on offense.

If Winnipeg is going to make the playoffs, they will need their top line to continue to score and score often. But, perhaps even more importantly, they need their second and third units to step up.

Players such as Kyle Wellwood and Nik Antropov need to regain their scoring touch as the season winds down.

Of course, there is also the trade deadline, which could impact Winnipeg’s playoff chances for better or worse. However, given the number of teams still in the playoff hunt because of the shortened season, it seems unlikely that any huge deals will be made, at least in the Southeast Division.

The Jets weren’t expected to contend for the division title this season, but neither were the Florida Panthers last year.

Now, with a month remaining in the season, the Jets are poised to bring playoff hockey back to Winnipeg.