- Scott Burnside, NHL
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If the Western Conference remains a place of high anxiety for teams such as the Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are wrestling for the final two playoff berths in the final days of the regular season, there is at last some clarity in the Eastern Conference.
Overtime victories by the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers on Thursday night made the outcome of the Winnipeg Jets-Montreal Canadiens game moot. Still, as if to emphasize the finality or even futility of the exercise, the Jets were downed at home 4-2 by the Habs and again will finish outside the playoff tournament.
Credit coach Claude Noel for guiding the Jets on a late-season surge toward the postseason, but after two seasons in Winnipeg since the team was relocated from Atlanta, it's hard to see that much has changed.
This is a franchise that has qualified for the playoffs only once in its history and has never won a playoff game, having been swept by the Rangers in its only appearance while in Atlanta in 2007.
As of Friday morning, the Jets were tied for 22nd overall in goals allowed per game, and if there is any solace it's that the teams with whom they were tied (the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars) aren't going anywhere but to the cottage next week, either.
The Jets rank 23rd on the penalty kill, and when you combine that with the team's ongoing struggle to keep the puck out of its own net, it tells a story that has been told and retold since the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999.
Is netminder Ondrej Pavelec the man? His 2.80 GAA ranks 38th in the NHL and his .905 save percentage is 33rd, but Pavelec ranks first in minutes played.
In some ways Pavelec reflects the team's ongoing identity, whether in Atlanta or in Winnipeg, and that is one of startling mediocrity.
The late-season run at a playoff berth, while no doubt exciting for Jets fans though certainly impeded by injuries to key personnel such as Zach Bogosian, does little to help move the team forward. Not quite good enough -- indeed almost never quite good enough -- to be a playoff team but rarely bad enough to reap the true rewards of poor play with a franchise draft pick.
It is, as has always been the case, a lineup with too much dead wood, and at this stage there is little optimism for a quick turnaround. Management has preached patience. That's a storyline that is familiar to anyone who has followed this franchise for any length of time.
There are more than a few parallels between the Jets and Blue Jackets, who joined the NHL a year after the Thrashers and have the same miserable playoff record: one appearance, that a sweep of the hands of the Red Wings in 2009. But on Thursday night, the Cinderella Blue Jackets kept their playoff dreams alive by crushing the Stars' hopes with a 3-1 victory in Dallas.
With Detroit also winning, the pressure, at least in the short term, turns to eighth-place Minnesota, which is tied with Columbus at 53 points (the Blue Jackets are ninth, having played one more game), one point behind Detroit. The Wild have two games left, one of which will be played Friday night at home against the Edmonton Oilers.
Like Detroit, the Wild control their destiny; keep winning and they're in. Columbus has to hope one if not both teams falter and it can win its final game, against the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
Still, even if Columbus falls short, is there anyone in the game who wouldn't take the Blue Jackets and their chances of both immediate and long-term revival over those of the Jets? Anyone?