The Montreal Canadiens are back in the playoffs following a one-year absence, but their recent poor play may have cost them their first Northeast Division title since 2007-08.
One loss just about ended the Winnipeg Jets' playoff chances.
Montreal will try to snap a season-worst three-game road losing streak Thursday night when the Jets close out their regular season.
The Canadiens (27-14-5) clinched a playoff spot with a 5-1 victory over Buffalo on April 11, but they've since lost five of six and are tied with Boston for the division lead. The Bruins, though, have a game in hand.
Montreal is fourth in the Eastern Conference and still has a chance to secure home-ice advantage in the opening round if it doesn't finish ahead of Boston, but the club has issues to fix before the postseason kicks off. Starting stronger would be one of those, as the Canadiens have fallen behind by at least two goals in the first period of each of their last five losses.
"It's been our last five or six now that we've come out flat and gone down early," forward Rene Bourque told the Canadiens' official website following Tuesday's 3-2 loss at New Jersey.
The Canadiens also need to fix a penalty-kill unit that's allowed 10 goals in 27 chances during the 1-5-0 stretch.
"We have to make the right decisions and we have to be smart," said coach Michel Therrien, whose team plays at Toronto in Saturday's season finale.
The Jets (24-20-3) have to win Thursday, and even that might not be enough to prevent them from getting eliminated from the East race. That's a tough position for the club to be in, especially since it could have moved a point ahead of Washington for the Southeast Division lead when the teams met Tuesday.
Instead, the Capitals' 5-3 victory gave them the division title, and it left Winnipeg - which was 6-0-1 in its previous seven - in ninth place, one point behind Ottawa and the New York Rangers.
That's not a huge gap, but it is considering the Senators have three games left and the Rangers play two more times.
"It was basically our Game 7 in the playoffs," said center Nik Antropov, who scored after missing the previous eight games with a lower-body injury. "And it's frustrating to lose that way."
The Jets have very little chance of making the postseason for the second time in franchise history - and first since 2007 when they were based in Atlanta - but they don't plan on just going through the motions in their finale.
"The worst thing you can do is sell yourself short and end up having those teams losing and then shoot yourself in the foot by not putting forth your best effort," said captain Andrew Ladd, the team leader with 46 points. "We're all professionals in this room - we'll show up and work hard and try to win that game against Montreal."
The Jets are 5-0-1 in their last six at home, while the Canadiens are riding their worst road skid since finishing last season 0-3-4.
Montreal, which lost 4-0 in its last game in Winnipeg on Dec. 22, 2011, has won four straight and seven of eight in this series following a pair of victories this season.
The Associated Press News Service
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