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We might see Nik tonight

Teammates, coach eager to see big centre back in lineup

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They do not have an abundance of what he brings -- the combination of size, reach and skill -- so the Winnipeg Jets will be keeping their fingers crossed that centre Nik Antropov is ready to return to the lineup tonight.

The Jets, who have won three straight home games without Antropov, meet the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at the MTS Centre (7:30 p.m., TSN Jets, TSN 1290).

Antropov, the team's highest-paid forward this season at $4.25 million, aggravated a recurring undisclosed injury Nov. 29 against Ottawa.

But the 31-year-old former first-round draft pick (1998) of the Toronto Maple Leafs has practised twice with his teammates this week and might be ready tonight.

"I just skated two times to see how it would react," Antropov said after Thursday's workout at the MTS IcePlex. "Tomorrow, after the morning skate, we'll make a decision.

"Yesterday (Wednesday), it reacted really good so we'll see how it is."

There will be no shortage of fans within the Jets' room eager for Antropov's return.

"He adds experience, reach, weight, smarts, gives us some big minutes," said coach Claude Noel. "He really is a big part of the line you put him with. He can handle people down low. He's really good in a lot of ways, areas.

"We've missed him. We've managed to continue to play and win without him but we've missed him."

If Antropov is back, bet on a reunion with Kyle Wellwood up front. Both Alex Burmistrov and captain Andrew Ladd have had success as Antropov's other winger this season.

"It's really big because Antro brings a lot of size to our lineup, especially on the power play and of faceoffs," Wellwood said. "He does the little things really well.

"He has a big effect on the game."

Wellwood's chemistry with Antropov goes back to their shared days with the Maple Leafs.

"I've played with him before and for me, being a small player, having a guy with size and reach makes it a lot easier out there for me," Wellwood said. "And he can handle the puck and he's smart.

"Nik's been a big part of our team. I'm anxious to have him back in the lineup."

Ladd was on Antropov's line for several games before the big centre went out of the lineup.

"He's such a big, big presence down the middle," the captain said. "He's strong on the puck and he gets to the net. I thought he, me and Welly were playing really well together, we had some good chemistry before he got hurt, so hopefully we can pick up where we left off."

Antropov, with four goals and 15 points in 22 games, has averaged 18 minutes 8 seconds of ice time with the Jets to this point of the season and he said Thursday he's eager to get back to work.

"The boys are winning games and I'm sitting in the press box," he smiled. "That's good for the team but personally, obviously I want to get back in the action."

What he has seen from his forced vantage point recently has been positive, he said.

"The play defensively has been really good," Antropov said. "We're not scoring many goals but we're capable of winning games and that's what good teams do in this league right now. It's good to see."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 9, 2011 C3

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