Two Points. The Race is Officially On.

Can a coach arrive in January and win Coach of the Year? If Paul Maurice continues to have the success he’s already had, the replacement for Claude Noel has to get an award for something.

At Christmas, with Noel behind the bench, the Jets were dead and buried. They were 12 points out of the final playoff spot in the West and while every fan, measured thinker and radio announcer had an answer, it didn’t appear that trades, benchings and/or a coaching change would make any difference.

The Jets and Chris Thorburn celebrate the game-winner.

The Jets and Chris Thorburn celebrate the game-winner.

Tuesday night, Chris Thorburn (that’s right, Chris Thorburn), scored at 18:57 of the third period to give the Jets a 2-1 victory in Carolina. With the win, the Jets improved to 9-2-0 since Noel was fired and Paul Maurice was hired. With those 18 points, the Jets have moved from 43 points in 47 games to 61 points in 58 games.

More importantly, Winnipeg is only two points out of the final playoff spot in the West.

The Jets are now 28-25-5. It’s the first time this season that Winnipeg has been three games above .500. They have moved into a virtual tie for 11th in the West (Dallas has 61 points but has played two fewer games) and are now sixth in the Central Division.

With three straight wins — two on this four-game road trip — the Jets are now just two points out of the final Wild Card spot. With 24 games remaining, the Race is Officially On.

Tuesday night, the Jets weren’t the best team on the ice (although the fact that Carolina had five power plays to Winnipeg’s zero played a major role in that situation). Carolina, a decent club that’s in a race for the final Wild Card spot in the East (and had lost only four times in their previous 15 games), had plenty of scoring chances and tested Ondrej Pavelec enough to get Pavelec named the game’s first star with 29 saves.

Paul Maurice wins in his return to Carolina.

Paul Maurice wins in his return to Carolina.

The Jets lost most of the faceoffs and were outshot 29-27, but they outhit Carolina 37-18 (the Jets outhit most teams they play) and won a lot of the battles in the corners and in the dirty parts of the rink. They also blocked a lot of shots again. The puck might have been in Winnipeg’s end for most of the game (power-plays, remember), but Pavelec didn’t face a lot of big, obvious scoring chances but when he did, he was rock solid.

Meanwhile, Thorburn, who used to get four-to-seven minutes of ice time under Noel (and Maurice), played almost 14 minutes on Tuesday night and was in the right spot at the right time.

Thorburn’s winner was his second goal of the season (and his second goal in the past four games under Maurice) and his 36th in 516 NHL games. Still, he’s contributing in a much greater way under Maurice than he ever did under Noel. In fact, he’s often the energy guy on a big line and on Tuesday night scored the winner on assists from Jacob Trouba and Blake Wheeler. It was Thorburn’s first game winner since 2008.

Meanwhile, Maurice returned to Carolina for the first time since he was fired in 2011 and got another win.

Pavelec was the game's first star.

Pavelec was the game’s first star.

“Everyone understands their role and we’re playing as a team,” Thorburn told the assembled media after the game. “With winning comes confidence, and confidence is a dangerous thing. We’re riding with it.”

After 11 games with Maurice at the helm, the Jets are back in the playoff hunt. If the Jets pull this off, Maurice has to get at least a couple of coach-of-the-year votes. In the meantime, just 24 to play.