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Coyotes-Jets Preview

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The Phoenix Coyotes return from the break with gold, silver and bronze medals, and more importantly for their playoff push, five healthy Olympians.

They'll try to get the final month and a half of the regular season off to a positive start Thursday night in Winnipeg against a Jets team also looking to push its way into the playoff picture.

Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith won gold with Canada, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson took silver with Sweden and forward Lauri Korpikoski captured bronze with Finland, but it's now time to readjust to the NHL ice. Coyotes teammates Martin Hanzal and Zbynek Michalek of the Czech Republic had more time to do so, having lost to the U.S. in last Wednesday's quarterfinals.

"That rink felt a little small (Tuesday) when I went out there for the first time," said Smith, who didn't get into a game as Canada's No. 3 goalie. "I'm not going to lie to you, I felt like I was in a closet skating around with a bunch of guys in there with me.

"It'll take a couple days to get back adjusted, but I was feeling very confident about my game before I left. I was able to see some of the best shooters in the world when I was in practice over there for two weeks, so I hope to start back off where I left when I went away to the Olympics."

Smith's last four games before the break featured a 1.27 goals-against average and .960 save percentage, but the Coyotes went 2-2-0 because of some offensive struggles. They scored seven goals in that time, yet center Antoine Vermette managed to extend his career-best point streak to 10 games.

Phoenix (27-21-10) returns to the ice just on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture with 64 points while Winnipeg (28-26-6) is two points back having played an additional two games.

"There's a big push now," Smith said. "We know where we are in the standings, and every game's going to be important."

The Jets welcome back Finland's Olli Jokinen and American Blake Wheeler, who just battled for the bronze.

"Fourth place is probably the worst place to finish in a tournament like that," Wheeler said Tuesday at practice. "It's disappointing, but I was really excited to get back on the ice with these guys today. I'm really excited about the direction we're going and the way we left things here. I just can't wait for Thursday."

Meanwhile, Jets coach Paul Maurice said everyone who stayed in North America is just as eager to get back to the NHL schedule.

"There's never a stretch of hockey that you practice as much as we've just practiced," Maurice said. "Not in training camp - you're into an exhibition game in Day 3 or Day 4. We're done with it. I'm done with it. We're done with practicing."

When the Jets do finally slip into game sweaters, Evander Kane will be among them. The forward missed the six games leading into the break with a hand infection as the Jets slowly crept up on the contending teams from the West.

The Jets are 9-3-1 since Maurice took over Jan. 12 after dropping their previous five games in regulation.

"We're still defining who we are, defining our game, and at the end of the day, that takes a lot longer than even a couple months," Maurice said. "It has to be tested in battle, and you have to have failures and successes and continue to get the belief in the room in the way that we want to play."

Maurice's first game as coach was a 5-1 home win over the Coyotes on Jan. 13.

Tagged: Coyotes, Jets, Mike Smith

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