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ANALYSIS: Winnipeg Jets are going to need to find another gear

That the mountain is getting steeper by the day should not come as a surprise.

Despite chipping away at a few of the narratives surrounding the team during the past month, the Winnipeg Jets still face overwhelmingly long odds to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Even after putting together a stretch that saw them go 11-5-1 – which was easily their best stretch since mid-November after getting off to the best start in 2.0 franchise history at 9-3-3 – the Jets enter the weekend three points behind the Dallas Stars, who hold three games in hand and have recently made a habit of rallying late to snatch victory from the hands of defeat.

With 13 games to go, the stakes are clearly defined.

Another lengthy winning streak will be required and the Jets might be able to afford one loss per week through April – and even that could end up being too many.

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Thursday’s 7-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs means the Jets have already hit their quota for this week and can’t afford to drop Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings – who took three of a possible four points from games against the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers this week.

While the Jets were able to secure 10 of a possible 12 points against six opponents currently below the playoff line, the strength of schedule is about to ramp up dramatically during the stretch run here.

Including Saturday’s tilt with the Kings, the Jets have five games against non-playoff teams (Detroit Red Wings, Seattle Kraken, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers) and eight games against teams above the playoff line (Kings, two against the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames.

For a team whose longest winning streak this season is four games (and remember, that came back in October), it’s going to take a miraculous finish for the Jets to sneak into the Stanley Cup playoffs for a fifth consecutive season (counting the qualifying round in 2020).

The recent play of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck suggests that anything is possible, but there have been elements of the team game that not even he – or Eric Comrie, who had his personal five-game winning streak snapped on Thursday – can cover up.

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Poor puck management has plagued the Jets for the majority of their season and that has accentuated some of the challenges the team has faced when it comes to their defensive structure.

Certainly some strides have been taken but it’s still the biggest area of concern for this team moving forward.

“You always can be better. We know that,” Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry said when I broached the subject earlier this week. “There are areas that we talk about every day that we know that we’re going to have to continue to get better at. But that’s not something that’s going to be changed overnight.

“That’s going to be something that is going to evolve and it takes time. We just have to continue to work, to continue to talk about it and to continue to focus in on it.”

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Nobody was expecting the Jets to become a defensive juggernaut overnight, but it’s clear that they will need to be more committed and make better decisions with the puck during these final 13 games to stay in the race and keep things interesting.

Another one of the issues that has returned for the Jets of late is a leaky penalty kill.

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Although it’s been dramatically better since shifting to a more aggressive style in December, the Jets are giving up goals with regularity while shorthanded (seven in 22 opportunities over the past six games) and it’s made life more difficult on them.

The three power-play markers for the Maple Leafs was the latest example of that and that’s another area the Jets are going to need to tidy up here sooner rather than later.

“Sometimes it’s just a bounce that goes in. There’s some talented players on those power plays and they’re making (plays),” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “It’s just been a matter of a blocked shot here or getting a stick in a certain lane or, again, just getting that puck out, whatever it might be, the little things. It’s not for a lack of trying.

“Guys, especially at some of these points in games, we want to get it done. Special teams are a huge part of wins. Usually when you win the special-teams battle, you win the game battle. The best way to do that is to stay out of the penalty box, first and foremost.”

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On the flip side, the Jets seem to have found their offensive mojo once again, as they’ve moved to the middle of the pack in goals per game (3.09).

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Jets captain Blake Wheeler is riding a seven-game point streak and the return of Nikolaj Ehlers has certainly bolstered the attack that’s been led to Kyle Connor, who landed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols earlier this week with Nate Schmidt and will be out for one more game.

READ MORE: Winnipeg Jets place Kyle Connor, Nate Schmidt in COVID-19 protocol

Wheeler has put a slow offensive start behind him, as he’s up to 12 goals and 54 points in 53 games, even more impressive when you consider he didn’t score his first of the season until Dec. 10.

He’s been doing it consistently, with at least a point in 12 of the past 13 games, and has shown chemistry since moving to a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois for the past four contests.

Having Ehlers back has been a reminder of what the Jets had been missing when he was sidelined for 19 games with a knee injury.

His speed and explosiveness makes life awfully difficult for the opponent and creates space for both himself and his linemates.

With a goal and an assist on Thursday, Ehlers is up to 21 goals and 40 points in 49 games.

He’s produced in 12 of the 15 games since his return and is going to need to keep up this torrid pace.

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In all likelihood, the missed opportunities from earlier this season and consistently inconsistent play is going to ultimately lead to disappointment for this edition of the Jets.

But they’ve still got 13 games to flip the script and author an inspiring ending.

The organization is about to reach a fork in the road this offseason and how certain players respond over these next four weeks could end up determining which path the Jets are going to take.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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