Every point is crucial as Jets face Leafs
TORONTO -- In one corner, you've got a franchise that hasn't played a playoff game since April 2004.
In the other, a team whose hometown waited 15 years to get back into the NHL.
Both fan bases ache for a playoff berth this spring like perhaps no two other fan bases in the league.
So is it not fitting that we see the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets jostling for position in the Eastern Conference standings with every point crucial in a dogfight that may last into the final week of the regular season.
The third meeting of the season between the two Canadian clubs, Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre, is ESPN.com's Game of the Week.
The Jets edged the Leafs 3-2 in Winnipeg on New Year's Eve, avenging a 4-3 shootout loss in Toronto on Oct. 19.
Just over a month ago, the Jets and Leafs weren't even in the same area code when it came to the standings. Toronto had an eight-point lead over Winnipeg when December opened. It's hard to believe now looking at the standings, but the Leafs went into a home-and-home set with the Bruins Nov. 30 and Dec. 3 with first place in the Northeast Division at play. Yeah, that was a long time ago.
The Bruins swept the two-game set and haven't looked back on their way to what should be a comfortable Northeast Division title grab.
The Leafs? They won only four of 13 games (4-6-3) in December to open the New Year in an all-too familiar position: fighting for their playoff lives.
Toronto kicked off 2012 with a much-needed 7-3 win over Tampa Bay on Monday night, and really, that's going to have to be the script for the Leafs to make the postseason this season: relying on their offense. Toronto, led by the lethal one-two punch of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, is sixth in the league in offense, which is juxtaposed against its 25th-place standing in goals against.
The Jets, meanwhile, revved up their rabid fan base with a 10-3-1 month of December to catapult them into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
When you've been out of the league 15 years, it feels like the Stanley Cup playoffs have already arrived. Even the front office is caught up in the excitement of being in a playoff race -- many would say an unexpected playoff race.
"You can't help but look at the standings," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told ESPN.com Wednesday prior to his team's game in Montreal. "Each and every day you're looking at them. That's the exhilarating part for us right now and for everybody. Every night you're watching the games and the highlights and seeing what everyone else is doing. It puts the importance on your games. All you can take care of is yourself but you're certainly keenly aware of what else is going on around you."
The Jets took advantage of a home-friendly schedule in December. Now comes the tough part. Beginning with Wednesday night's game in Montreal, the Jets play nine of 13 on the road this month. If the Jets are for real, we'll find out in January.
"Now it will be a test," said Cheveldayoff. "Obviously, we have some bumps and bruises like anybody, but when it's your key players it puts everyone else to the test."
The Jets are currently missing one of their top defensemen in Dustin Byfuglien (knee) as well as first-liner Bryan Little (foot). Injuries have pounded the Jets for most of the season but the call-ups have done the job and the club has shown resilience in the face of it.
Little is expected back any day, and Byfuglien shouldn't be far behind.
"There's nothing serious, he's still day to day," Cheveldayoff said of Byfuglien. "He's not on the trip right now but might join us on the trip for the latter part."
What's really made the difference of late for the Jets, even without Byfuglien, is the team's defensive play -- although the Jets gave up seven goals to the Canadiens on Wednesday night. The Jets have really tightened up over the past month, going from bottom third in the league in goals against to middle of the pack.
All of which has the Jets unexpectedly in a playoff race.
"What we've always talked about right from the beginning of the season is growth," said Cheveldayoff. "From the start of the season to the end of the season, we were going to continue to grow and measure ourselves based on that growth. In our estimation, we've had a lot of guys audition for spots because of the injuries, but again that's not unique just like other teams. But it's about how you handle it. Hopefully we can continue to grow."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.