- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

The Winnipeg Jets have taken off and are on course to land in the playoffs, an experience their passionate fans haven’t enjoyed in nearly 20 years.

“At this point in the season, obviously it becomes a little bit more realistic,” left wing Evander Kane said. “But we don’t pay too much attention to that. We’re just focused on the 20-some-odd guys we have in the room and the job we need to do ourselves.”

They’ve been doing that job well.

The Jets went 6-0-1 in their last seven games before the All-Star break to take a firm grip on the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference into the final stretch. They’re in fourth place in the daunting Central Division, five points behind leader Nashville.

“I love our room. We’ve stuck together all year. We had a tough start to the season,” right wing Blake Wheeler said. “We’ve made a commitment to each other to just do the right things and stick with what works. I think we’ve put a lot of individual stuff behind us and just rallied around our team and our group and what we’re good at. I think that makes playing this game with these guys a lot of fun.”

The old Jets went one-and-done in the 1996 playoffs, their last year in Winnipeg before moving to Arizona to become the Coyotes. The NHL returned to Manitoba in 2011, but the franchise that floundered in Atlanta as the Thrashers has qualified for the postseason only once in 15 years (in 2007). The new Jets have been competitive most of the time, but this season the breakthrough has been obvious.

“They’ve been unbelievable this year. They’re a big, fast strong team. They play a good team game,” Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “We played them three times now and lost to them all three times. They’re tough games every time we play them. They’re going to be a team to beat.”

The professorial conductor of the success this season is coach Paul Maurice, who was hired a little over a year ago after the firing of Claude Julien. He has injected some liveliness into his relatively young team, pushing a punishing style with back-checking forwards yet enough speed and skill to play a puck-possession game.

All-Star Dustin Byfuglien, now a permanent presence on the first blue line pairing where he’s most comfortable after spending some time on the wing, is 10th in the league with 144 hits. The Jets lead the NHL in penalty minutes. They’re in the middle of the pack in scoring, with well-balanced production along the top two lines.

“They have a lot of meat on that team. They play hard. They play fast, and they come after you. It reminds me a lot of our team,” said center Anze Kopitar of the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Maurice reflected last week on the progress from those pressure-filled early days of his tenure. Even this season, the Jets have overcome a rash of injuries on defense and a four-game October losing streak when they were outscored 13-2 after winning their opener.

“There was a lot of frustration. They were playing hard. They wanted to play better,” Maurice said. “And now, I think the general feel in there is that we’ve been pretty good. We’re on the right path. When you stand behind the bench, the players call the game, too. They know what’s going on.”

Goaltending has been perhaps the biggest strength, with rookie Michael Hutchinson taking more and more turns from Ondrej Pavelec, who has been vastly improved himself from a year ago. Hutchinson is second in the NHL with a 1.90 goals-against average.

Jets fans chanted his name as their last game before the break wound down, a 4-0 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Though a limited amount of tickets are still made available for each home date at the MTS Centre, a base of 13,000 season tickets for the 15,000-seat arena has made the full house a nightly occurrence.

“We’ve definitely turned a corner up there,” Byfuglien said. “Our game has come a long way. Our locker room is better. We’ve handled things a lot better. … It’s definitely changed. It’s a good thing, and it’s fun to be a part of.”


AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller and AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.

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