WINNIPEG - With the line in sight that separates the playoff-bound from the rest of the pack in the NHL, Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel wants more effort from his team when they meet the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
"They're another team we're battling with to get above the line so it's a big game for us," he says.
There's little margin for error considering Montreal (13-14-7, 33 points) was just two points behind Winnipeg (15-13-5, 35 points) heading into the Canadiens' game Wednesday night in Chicago.
Buffalo and Washington also sit at 35 points in the tightly packed Eastern conference and Toronto and Ottawa, the last teams in the top eight, have just 36.
The Jets failed to pull away from the pack when they settled for a single point Tuesday in a 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Islanders.
Noel wasn't pleased with how they played the first part of the game.
"I'd like us to play with a little more life. . . . We didn't have a lot of spirit in the game."
One concrete example may be the lack of a power-play opportunity. In two meetings this year, the Islanders haven't taken a single penalty against Winnipeg. It didn't hurt the Jets the first time, when they beat New York at home 3-0.
"You have to create your own power plays by getting to the net . . . so people have to take you down or hook you," the coach said.
"We didn't really initiate enough to get a penalty called."
He said with the Christmas break near, families are around and it may be difficult for players to stick to routines. He tried to get some of that concentration back at practice Wednesday.
The team is feeling the pressure.
"It's so close . . . it seems like you're playing either to go to sixth or 13th every given night right now," said defenceman Ron Hainsey, wiping the sweat from his forehead after practice.
"The result seems like a very, very big deal every game and you've got another one a day later."
The Jets won four straight to start December and did move just under the line that separates the top eight playoff-bound teams from the rest. But it still wasn't enough.
"Even if you win three in a row you're really not getting away," said Hainsey.
"It's very intense right now for this point in the season."
Montreal won their first encounter this year 5-1 in the circus that surrounded the Jets' first regular-season home opener, after the team relocated from Atlanta.
This time it's the Canadiens who are dealing with outside pressures as controversy swirls around new unilingual anglophone coach Randy Cunneyworth.
"I feel for him, it's hard enough to coach in the National Hockey League let alone coach in tough circumstances like that," said Noel, although he tried his best to shy away from the language issue.
"I don't know the situation enough there. I've not lived in the province to understand it enough to say it's right or wrong."
Noel is a Franco-Ontarian who does speak French, although he mocks his own linguistic abilities.