Sitting in last place in the NHL's most competitive division has more stature than one would think. Even as the calendar turns to March, the label comes with playoff hope.
The Winnipeg Jets head to Nashville on Saturday two points ahead of the last-place Predators, and both teams remain focused on holding off the other while tracking down the other three Western Conference teams in their way.
The Jets (29-26-6) have made great strides toward doing so since coach Paul Maurice took over. After Thursday's 3-2 shootout win over Phoenix, they've gone 10-3-1 since the Jan. 12 change behind the bench.
"I think it's an all-out sprint," Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler said after the team's first game back from the Olympic break. "There's no time to be tired."
Wheeler and Bryan Little scored in regulation, while Ondrej Pavelec made 34 saves and three additional stops in the shootout to keep things headed in the right direction after the extended hiatus.
"It was tough at times," Maurice said, "but just from the stuff I watched the last two days (around the league), it was a better game than I thought I was going to see."
Pavelec improved to 8-3-0 with a 2.35 goals-against average since Maurice took over.
"It was nice to get the win in the first game back, but it's one game," Pavelec told the team's official website. "We go to Nashville (Saturday), so ... it's going to be another big one."
One of those 11 games under Maurice was a 4-3 home loss to Nashville on Jan. 28, the fourth meeting between the Central Division foes this season and Winnipeg's third loss in those contests. The only meeting in Nashville was a 3-2 overtime victory for the Predators on Oct. 24 that gave them four straight home wins against the Winnipeg-Atlanta franchise.
Nashville (26-24-10) also returned from the break with a victory, but Thursday's 3-2 home win over Tampa Bay followed a 7-6-6 stretch that sent the team spiraling to the bottom while the Jets picked up steam. Regaining that ground is now the focus as the Predators enter their second game on a five-game homestand.
"We got 22 playoff games to go to see if we can make the playoffs," Nashville coach Barry Trotz told the team's official website after beating the Lightning. "We're gonna be happy for another 45 minutes and then we have to think about the Winnipeg Jets."
What the team had to be happy about was overcoming a 2-0 deficit with second-period goals from Matt Cullen and Roman Josi before Patric Hornqvist got the winner in the third. All the goals came on the power play - the first time this season that the Predators converted more than twice with the man advantage. Shea Weber assisted on two of them.
"We've been moving the puck pretty well, I think, making good decisions, understanding," Trotz said. "Guys have been together for a while. You need guys to be in position and guys have to execute the play."
In goal, Carter Hutton faced just 16 shots and improved to 7-2-2 since Jan. 14 with a pedestrian 2.60 GAA and .907 save percentage. The first-year Nashville goalie has done most of the work of late, but that might not be the case for long.
Pekka Rinne has returned to the ice on a conditioning assignment with AHL Milwaukee, and the parent club will be monitoring his progress over the weekend. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist has missed all but nine games this season due to an E. coli infection in his surgically repaired left hip.
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