In less than two months, Paul Maurice has turned the Winnipeg Jets into a serious playoff contender.
The host Jets can continue their surge with a third straight victory that also would extend the New York Islanders’ latest slide Tuesday night.
Winnipeg (30-26-6) was 10 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference and mired in a season-high five-game skid when Maurice replaced the fired Claude Noel as coach Jan. 12. Since then, the Jets are 11-3-1 and very much in the mix for the final playoff spot in the West.
"It’s been great to put ourselves in position to be back in the race," forward Andrew Ladd told the Jets’ official website after Saturday’s 3-1 victory at Nashville.
"We’re playing our best hockey of the year at this point and we’re on a pretty good run here, so confidence is where it needs to be in a run. Like I said, we understand that we need to stay on the gas here and keep pushing."
Winnipeg has buckled down and allowed an average of 2.2 goals in the 15 games under Maurice, compared to 3.1 in 47 contests with Noel.
Ondrej Pavelec has been a big reason for that improvement, going 9-3-0 with a 2.23 goals-against average since Maurice arrived. He was 11-19-4 with 3.14 GAA with Noel behind the bench.
Pavelec made 39 saves against the Predators after stopping 34 shots during a 3-2 shootout victory over Phoenix on Thursday.
"He’s had a big stretch of really good games," Maurice said.
Pavelec, however, has a 2.90 GAA while losing four in a row against New York (23-32-8).
Ex-Islander Al Montoya made 28 saves and Ladd had one of Winnipeg’s three second-period goals during a 3-2 victory on Long Island on Nov. 27.
While the Jets are making a push for the postseason, the Islanders are playing for pride and without injured star John Tavares during the final stretch of the season.
A loser in nine of 11, New York returned from the Olympic break with a 5-4 overtime victory over Toronto on Thursday, then was outscored 11-4 in losses to New Jersey and Florida. Thomas Vanek scored twice to give the Islanders a 2-0 first-period lead Sunday, but the Panthers tallied four goals in the third to rally from a 3-1 hole and win 5-3.
"We seem to find ways to lose,” defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "It’s tough to see games slip away. When you get the lead, you should be able to hold it, most of the time. It’s discouraging."
MacDonald won’t have to worry about the Islanders coughing up any more leads. New York on Tuesday shipped the veteran, in the last year of his contract, to Philadelphia for a pair of draft picks and minor league center Matt Mangene.
MacDonald, who is three points shy of his career high of 27 set in 2010-11, has played his entire six-year career with the Islanders. Winger Thomas Vanek, acquired from Buffalo earlier this season, could also be on the trade block.
Ladd has three goals in his last five games and 10 points in the past 10. He’s recorded four goals with three assists in his last nine against the Islanders.