WINNIPEG — Andrew Ladd believes the Winnipeg Jets can still silence naysayers and grab a spot in the NHL playoffs.
While the Jets hold the first of two wild-card berths in the Western Conference, their grip is slipping after putting up a 4-3-3 run in their last 10 games.
Winnipeg (30-20-11) has 71 points, just two ahead of the surging Minnesota Wild and three in front of both the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks, but the Wild and Flames have each played two fewer games.
The last time Winnipeg fans watched NHL playoff action was way back in 1996 with the what is now the Arizona Coyotes franchise.
“Not too many people gave us a shot at the beginning of the year,” Ladd said after Monday’s practice.
“I don’t think too many people expected us to be in this position, so we’ve kind of taken on that underdog role the whole year. I think we’ve rallied around that and we’ll look to get better.”
Their playoff push took another hit on the injury front, a week after the club lost forward Mathieu Perreault to a lower-body injury that could keep him out for the remainder of the regular season.
Head coach Paul Maurice announced that rookie defenceman Ben Chiarot will be out about six weeks after having surgery to repair broken bones in his left hand following a fight with Toronto’s Daniel Winnik in Saturday’s 4-3 Maple Leafs’ overtime victory.
Top-line winger Blake Wheeler was also missing from Monday’s practice. Maurice said he was “possible” for Tuesday’s home game against the Dallas Stars.
Wheeler took a puck to his right knee in Winnipeg’s 5-1 loss to Washington last Thursday, but he played against Toronto.
Maurice said Dustin Byfuglien will remain at forward until the situation with Wheeler is clear. The Jets still have seven healthy defencemen even if Byfuglien stays at forward.
Winnipeg begins a four-game homestand against the Stars (27-24-9), who are 4-5-1 in their last 10 games.
Centre Bryan Little said a return to the tight, defensive game they played earlier in the season could help the Jets get back on track.
Playing 12 of their final 21 regular-season games at home could be a boost, too. Winnipeg is 15-10-4 at home and 15-10-7 on the road.
Little knows their playoff-starved fans are concerned and sitting on the edge of their seats.
“A lot of teams are playing well that are close to us so I understand where they’re coming from,” Little said.
“You feel the pressure going into every game, how big it is, and we’re just really working hard to try and fix it, get back on track and start playing the way we used to.”
The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, while the two wild-card spots in each conference are filled by the next pair of teams with the most points from either division.
The Jets sit in fourth place in the Central Division, four points back of Chicago (which has one game in hand).
Winnipeg’s remaining 21 games include 15 against conference teams, with nine of those versus division rivals.
Over in the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Kings are in third place, but their 68 points are tied with Calgary and San Jose.
Jets rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson said he doesn’t dwell on all the playoff scenarios.
“I really don’t look at what the other teams are doing because that just ends up you’re playing mind games with yourself,” he said.
“You can only control what you do. If you win the games, you’re setting up yourself to be in a good situation. You shouldn’t have to really worry about hoping the other teams lose.”