SAN JOSE, Calif. — For all the disappointment of these final games for the Winnipeg Jets there is one shining positive and that is the play and maturation of Blake Wheeler.
The big Minnesotan with blinding speed and super ice vision had it all on display in Thursday’s 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks.
The victory was nice but still leaves the Jets on the outside looking in and they are now nine points back of the last wild-card berth currently held by the Phoenix Coyotes. Winnipeg has eight games left to close the gap, which is mathematically possible but a distinctly remote possibility.
Wheeler put up a goal and two assists and was Winnipeg’s best player again, as he has been on almost every night since waking up from an early season slumber that stretched well into November.
The Jets fell behind 2-1 after the first period on San Jose goals from Dan Boyle and Brent Burns sandwiching Jets captain Andrew Ladd’s 22nd of the season.
Wheeler then took complete control of the game in the second period, first scoring his 25th goal of the season on an unassisted play. He followed up that goal by setting the puck on a tee for Dustin Byfuglien to give the Jets a 3-2 lead.
San Jose’s Logan Couture tied the game at 3-3 before the second period ended, but Wheeler wasn’t done. With the game tied late, the Jets were awarded a power play and Wheeler took the puck behind the Sharks net before finding a pinching Toby Enstrom and zipping a pass through traffic the little Swede converted into the winner.
Wheeler’s play picked up and caught fire in December to the point where Team USA GM David Poile was able to add him to the American Olympic roster, and the experience has paid dividends and seen the right-winger’s game rise to even greater heights.
Wheeler didn’t play much for Team USA in Sochi, but the opportunity to skate and work on a daily basis with his country’s best players rubbed off and he’s been ever better since returning from Russia.
Last night’s three points pushed Wheeler’s season total to 62, just two shy of his career high of 64. More importantly, Wheeler hasn’t gone into a drought since early in the season and that new-found consistency promises there’s more to come. It’s no stretch to see Wheeler having an 80-points plus season, cracking into that elusive point-a-game stratosphere that distinguishes the great from the good in the NHL.
Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty has some good memories from his days with the Sharks, but none bigger than his Game 7 double-overtime 5-4 victory over the Calgary Flames in the 1995-96 Stanley Cup playoffs.
"We won the first two games of the series and then they won the next three. In Game 5, we were getting drilled and Archie Irbe was in net for us and he got yanked after taking a run at Sheldon Kennedy.
"We lost and then went back to San Jose for Game 6 and it was big secret before the game, but I played. We won 5-3 to force Game 7 back in Calgary. I stopped 57 of 61 shots and we scored early in the second overtime. It was a lot of rubber but it was fun."
The Jets reassigned centre Patrice Cormier to the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps prior to the game. Cormier has seen action in seven games for the Jets this season with no goals and one assist.