Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel was in a good mood during his session with the media on Thursday morning.
For me, that meant being on the end of one of his zingers.
When there’s “Joy in Joyland” Noel occasionally takes some shots at the members of the media and today was my turn and the remark came during a conversation about his philosophy about matching his top line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler against the top line of the opposition.
“First of all, you have to see if it works and if it’s working, that’s what I normally do,” said Noel. “For example, last game we went head-to-head, so there was a lot of jockeying around there. You probably never noticed because usually you sleep during the game…Just kidding.
“You watch, you see how it goes and if you sense it doesn’t go, then what’s your other alternative? You find another.”
I countered by saying that I had noticed Noel getting his top line against the fourth line of the opposition of late as well.
“Is that a compliment? Thank you,” said Noel. “This is what happens when you win a couple games in a row, you get some laughter. Sometimes it’s pretty sombre in here.”
In all seriousness, the Jets were all business in the dressing room as they dealt with the monotony of having to talk about getting about for another huge game.
It should be noted that it’s another huge game against another opponent that’s out of it, something that’s happened with some regularity during this four-game winning streak on what will be a six-game homestand.
“It’s not like they’re just going to come out and go through the motions,” said Little. “When you’re out of the playoffs, you’re still playing and you still want to spoil other teams’ post-seasons. We’ve been in that position before, so I don’t expect them to lay over. They’re going to try to come out and beat us.
“They always give us trouble and their top line (Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty), when they’re going is one of the better lines in the league.”
The high stakes have been a frequent topic of conversation, but the Jets’ players realize it comes with the territory and is better than the alternative of talking about playing out the spring or getting ready for the following season.
“(Talking to the media) comes with it, but it’s easier to do than you’re winning hockey games and talking about positive things,” said Ladd, who has been a force of late. “You just try to build on the games you’ve had and the feeling that comes out of those games.
“You look at the situation we’re in and the pressure that comes with every game, you should be hungrier every game. With the success, it makes it easier to be excited every night, to be a part of the race and to push to make the playoffs. In our minds, we control our own destiny, which is a nice feeling but we don’t have much wiggle room either. If you lose a game, that could easily be taken away from us. We want to stay on top of that and be in control of our own destiny throughout this process.”
If the Jets need a reminder of how dangerous the Hurricanes can be, they will surely remember that they’re one of only two teams to lose to Carolina during the past 17 games. And how valuable would an extra two points look for the Jets in this frenetic race to the finish line right now?
“The cliche is true, we’ve got to worry about this one tonight,” said Wheeler. “As long as we keep passing every test, the magnitude grows and that’s fun. That’s playoff hockey right there and we’re in the midst of a chase. That’s fun to be a part of.”
The Jets will dress the same lineup, while the Hurricanes will dress 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
Ondrej Pavelec makes his ninth consecutive start for the Jets, while Justin Peters gets the call for the Hurricanes.
Peters was solid in the last meeting, making 34 saves in a 3-1 victory for the visitors.
With all due respect to Peters and Dan Ellis, the Hurricanes simply haven’t been able to recover from the loss of goalie Cam Ward to injury.
“They’ve had a bit of a losing spell in the last month or so, it’s a team you want to take advantage of when they come in here. We’re on a roll now and we want to use our energy. It’s about establishing your will to win the game. Obviously, they want to be spoilers,,” said Jets forward Kyle Wellwood. “It seems to be a lot different because they can’t seem to win. A lot has to do with Ward (being out), but their goalie in net now (Peters) is capable of stealing a game at any time. I’m sure he’s hankering to show everyone that he can play.”
Ladd is a former teammate and remains a close friend of Ward, so I asked the Jets captain about how different the Hurricanes are without him between the pipes.
“You learn to appreciate what Cam brings to the Hurricanes,” said Ladd. “He’s just a rock back there and has been as long as he’s been there. He’s their last line of defence and allows you to make some mistakes. When he’s not there, maybe those mistakes become a little more magnified.”
“He’s one of the better goalies in the league, so when he’s not in net your mindset changes a bit,” added Little. “You try to get more shots on net and try to test whoever is in there. Whoever is in net can have a great night, on any given night. It’s not a guarantee we’re going to pile in the goals.”
Despite the struggles that have seen his team drop out of top spot in the Southeast Division, Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller likes the effort his team has put forth during this tough stretch and figures they deserved a better fate on many nights.
“I’ve got to admit, I’m really pleased with the way they’ve been playing during this stretch, they’ve been playing hard. Quite honestly, we deserved points in probably 11 of the games. We only had three games where we haven’t played well, so it has been frustrating. We’ve had some really strong games where we’ve walked away with nothing ,” said Muller, whose club is a disappointing 4-12 vs Southeast Division opponents this season. “We’re playing with a lot of focus and energy. We’ve got some young guys in the lineup and what it’s about for us is getting better every day and building with our core group and not picking up any bad habits. Playing the game the right way and playing it hard.
“All our games from here on in are going to be against opponents that are fighting for (playoff) spots. It’s a loud crowd here and it’s a tough place to come in and play. We’ve got to be ready for a fast-paced game.”
The road team is a perfect 3-0 so far in the season series, with the Jets winning twice in North Carolina and the Hurricanes winning in the lone game at MTS Centre last month.
Muller said forward Jeff Skinner had returned to Raleigh, N.C. to have an upper-body injury looked at (the result of a hit by Ottawa Senators D Jared Cowen) but initial results suggest Skinner could be back by the weekend, which means he didn’t suffer a concussion.
The Jets go into tonight’s action in ninth place in the East, but are tied in points (46) with the New York Rangers, who hold a game in hand.
For those wondering what’s happening on the out-of-town scoreboard, there are three other games of interest to the Jets’ playoff hopes tonight: Islanders at Maple Leafs, Panthers at Rangers and Capitals at Senators.
Unlike earlier this week, a Jets win, coupled with a Rangers loss can actually move Winnipeg back above the playoff line.
The Rangers are also in action on Friday against the Buffalo Sabres in a huge game for both teams. That will also be the game in hand the Rangers have on the Jets and it’s coming in a back-to-back situation.
Here’s how we expect both teams to start on Thursday night:
Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane, Olli Jokinen, Kyle Wellwood
Eric Tangradi, Alex Burmistrov, Mike Santorelli
James Wright, Aaron Gagnon, Chris Thorburn
Dustin Byfuglien, Grant Clitsome
Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart, Paul Postma
Ondrej Pavelec (Al Montoya)
Alexander Semin, Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty
Tuomo Ruutu, Jordan Staal, Chad LaRose
Nicolas Blanchard, Riley Nash, Patrick Dwyer
Tim Wallace, Kevin Westgarth
Tim Gleason, Justin Faulk
Jay Harrison, Joe Corvo
Bobby Sanguinetti/Marc-Andre Bergeron, Jamie McBain
Justin Peters (Dan Ellis)