Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blues down Jets in shootout

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The playoff picture for the Winnipeg Jets may be drawn in sand — so much can change on any day their place in the standings can be washed away in an instant — but this much is now so certain it can be written in permanent marker:

Blake Wheeler is morphing into one of the National Hockey League’s elite power forwards.

And so it was for Wheeler and the Jets Saturday afternoon at MTS Centre when the home side fell behind 2-0 after 20 minutes to the stingy St. Louis Blues, then rallied courtesy a pair of goals by the big man before falling 3-2 in a shootout.

Now, those who want to do the glass-is-half-empty thing will point to the shots — Winnipeg peppered Jaro Halak with 41 shots and only allowed 16 on Chris Mason — but here’s another reality:

The Jets have now picked up eight of a possible 10 points in their current homestand so far and are 4-0-2 in their last six. But a late rally by the Florida Panthers against the Carolina Hurricanes — they won in a shootout — means the Panthers and Jets are tied for 68 points. However, because Florida has games in hand, they grab first in the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference and push the Jets down to eighth.

"We would have liked to have had the two points, but we didn’t get the second," said Jets’ coach Claude Noel. "But there were a lot of good things I took out of our game with our play. I thought our players were really good. We saw a lot of ‘A’ games from our guys. I thought their resiliency was really good and I thought Blake Wheeler was the best player on the ice for both teams, by far.

"He was really good. He was dangerous all the time and he’s a hard man to control when he skates like that. He’s got reach... he dings one off the post, scores two... that’s heckuva ‘A’ game for me. What I really liked, is when you see the growth of a young player like him coming into his own, that’s the fun part when you watch that."

In being named the first star, Wheeler gave the Blues’ defensive corps nightmares with his combination of size and speed and not only picked up his 12th and 13th goals of the season, but extended his point streak to six games (3G, 10A). The Minnesotan also rang one off the goal post and then was the only Jet to beat Halak in the shootout while Andy McDonald and David Perron beat Chris Mason.

But back to Wheeler... let’s just say that while some might sleep nervously before Monday’s NHL trade deadline, he’ll rest comfortably. That’s what happens when a guy earns two standing ovations in a game — the first after he tied the score at 2-2, the second before and after he beat Halak in the shootout — and hears the crowd chanting ‘Wheel-er! Wheel-er!’ over and over and over again.

"That was awesome," said Wheeler. "That was special, especially when you’re going into a shootout. No matter how many times you’ve gone in those things you’re always a little nervous going in there. But I heard them chanting my name and had a pretty good feeling going in."

A couple of factors did rob the Jets of the second point: 1. The previously red-hot power-play was 0-for-2 on the afternoon and 2. The Blues capitalized on a pair of the very few mistakes they did commit.

"We feel like that was a game we should have won," Wheeler said. "The only slight negative you can take out of this game is that we didn’t get two points. Other than that, there’s no way to take any negatives from this game. We were strong on the puck, we were physical, we threw a lot of pucks at the net, we didn’t have many turnovers. We probably made two mistakes all game and they end up in our net.

"That’s the way this game goes sometimes. We’re not happy, we’re not satisfied, but at the same time we’re going to focus on the positives here today because we had a pretty good day."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Game preview

The view from the summit can be spectacular. Andrew Ladd, a man who has twice hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head, can detail the experience as well as anyone in the Winnipeg Jet dressing room.

But that view is best experienced in late June, not February. It's clear, it's unobstructed and there are no opponents clawing for a look-see themselves.

And so as the Jets returned to work Friday morning -- just hours after grabbing first place in the Southeast Division with a 4-3 victory over Tampa Thursday night -- there was a common refrain coming from the mouths of the captain and his teammates:

Life can be good, the air fresher, the beer colder and the food tastier at the top, but don't get too fat and sassy with it all until the mission is accomplished.

"We're not going to celebrate anything until the job's done," said Ladd after Friday's practice. "There's such a long way to go and lots of hockey left to be played. We've got to keep our foot on the gas here and keep winning games."

The Jets, now 30-26-7, will play five of their next seven against Western Conference opponents before a stretch that will see them face Eastern opponents in 11 of their final 12 regular-season games. And then, if their universe unfolds as they hope, they'll be playing meaningful games when the Stanley Cup tournament opens in mid-April. But, again, the Jets weren't going to go anywhere near that topic on Friday.

"You can't," said Tanner Glass. "This time of year it can change so fast. Everyone's playing so hard and with all these three-point games there's so many points going around you can't really watch the scoreboard too much.

"It's true, the view from here is good. But at the same time a lot of teams have games in hand on us."

"It's such a funny thing... there's still 20 games to go and people start scoreboard watching. I don't really watch it. I know you guys have a job to do with writing about this kind of thing at this time of year, but it's about business as usual for me.

"I don't care if we're in third or 10th... right now it's still about getting the two points."

Jokingly asked if he went home late Thursday and fired up a celebratory cigar to commemorate taking over top spot in the Southeast, Glass grinned.

"Actually, I went home and cooked a good meal and got some rest. We're just trying to stay even and approach the next one like we did the last one."

Now, let's not paint the picture that the Jets are a collection of humourless robots incapable of any kind emotion or joy.

Walk around the team's dressing room for any length of time and it's clear they are enjoying a stretch that has seen them go 4-0-1 to climb into the playoff conversation. They just know better now of the dangers of getting too caught up in the moment -- an malady some of them experienced last season in Atlanta.

"Everyone's on the same page," said Blake Wheeler. "We're already part of something special just being here in Winnipeg and the culture around this team. To be competing for a playoff spot and competing for our division is something we all set out to do. We were behind the eight-ball early, but our play lately has got us right back into it.

"It's going to be a really fun next 19 games to be playing hockey here in Winnipeg."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Live game blog

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2012 C1

History

Updated on Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 1:28 PM CST: Adds first goal

1:55 PM: Adds first period summary

2:32 PM: Adds Jets goal

2:37 PM: Adds Jets second goal

2:48 PM: Adds second period summary

3:55 PM: Adds final

6:34 PM: Gamer.

9:21 PM: Update

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