Eyeing playoffs, Jets set sights on Rangers

It is like the schedule maker knew, right?

The Winnipeg Jets welcome the New York Rangers to their hostile environment Thursday night with the two clubs tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

After spending most of the season hovering just below that eighth spot, the Jets can finally come up for air if they upend the Rangers.

"We’d like to be above the line, so that means somebody has to be below it other than us, and we don’t care who it is,” Jets coach Claude Noel told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The Rangers will be coming in here a little snarly because we beat them in their building. And they had a tough one last night, too. It’s going to be a good game. We have to play the same way [as Tuesday night]."

The Rangers, who lost 4-3 at home to Winnipeg on Feb. 26, laid an egg in Buffalo on Tuesday night in losing a 3-1 decision to the struggling Sabres.

Just when you think the Blueshirts are showing signs they’re back to being the contenders many of us predicted, they take a step backwards. So you know coach John Tortorella will have his team fired up for Thursday night.

That’s exactly what Noel did with his troops Tuesday night in an emotional 5-2 win over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, one of Winnipeg’s better all-around efforts of the season.

"We’re playing pretty good," Noel said. "We’re playing a bit better defensively. We’re getting good goaltending. We wanted to send the message Tuesday night that we need to play better at home. I thought our guys really played well. We played the way we had played last year [at home] with a lot of passion. We wanted to get back to playing a lot better in our home building."

After dominating at the MTS Centre last season, going 23-13-5 in front of the loudest crowd in the NHL, the Jets were only 4-6-0 at home this season before delivering Tuesday night’s impressive win over the Leafs.

"Last night, we got some production from different people. I thought [Nik] Antropov had a real strong night, one of his better games I’ve seen him play," Noel said. "The thing I liked the most about that game was that we played with some energy. We played with a sense of purpose, which we hadn’t seen consistently for a while. That was a consistent 60 minutes of hard play."

Noel felt captain Andrew Ladd led the way with his physical play, which also included a fight with Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf.

"I thought the leadership of Andrew Ladd last night was huge," Noel said. "They started to try to knock us around at home, and he would have none of that. I thought he really showed the way, which I thought was fabulous."

These are big moments right now for the Jets. The pressure is on this franchise to make the playoffs. Last season, the fans in Winnipeg would have cheered on a 0-82 team, just content to get an NHL team back after a 15-year absence.

In Season 2, however, they want more.

"I think the honeymoon’s over, I agree," Noel said. "Last year, the fans were happy to be back part of the National Hockey League, they were just happy to have a team to cheer for. Now they want more than that and they expect more than that, and I think they should. It’s very clear what the fans want: They want to be proud of our team, of the way we play and perform, they want to see improvement in our game, and they want to see that we’re trying. When you don’t, they let you know. They’re knowledgeable hockey fans, they’re through the roof. But they don’t expect anything less from us than what we should expect from our ourselves, to be honest."

Of course, catching and passing the likes of New York or New Jersey in the standings isn’t the only way for the Jets to get in the playoffs. It just so happens that Carolina only has a three-point lead atop the Southeast Division. That guaranteed top-three seed is another carrot the Jets are aiming for.

"We talked about it last week," Noel said. "There’s two ways for us to get into the playoffs, to either get above the line [top eight in conference] or to win our division. We don’t want to lose sight of those two things. It really doesn’t matter to us which way it happens. But the first thing for us is to play consistently and keep getting points."

It is time to prove they’re for real.

"We wanted to take a step in the right direction in last night’s game to prove to ourselves that we can be a team that can be above the [eighth-place] line," Noel said. "We don’t just want to hover around it like we did last year."

They want in this season. The Rangers better be ready Thursday night.