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Wheeler comes up big against Bruins

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The time has come: Count Blake Wheeler as one of the better young power forwards in the NHL right now.

Sound absurd? If Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic, 23, is the gold standard for the gig then you can now put the Winnipeg Jets forward into the conversation. Wheeler scored once and added two key assists Friday night to help lead the Jets past the Bruins 4-2 at the MTS Centre, an effort that had many buzzing about the play of the 25-year-old.

"You feel good when things are going well," he said after finishing his night with three points to give him a team-leading 42 points this season -- the same output as Lucic to this point. "Things have kind of been up and down. For me, I went through it earlier this year when you get into a slump and all of a sudden you start questioning yourself. You learn from those things.

"That's why the beginning of the season was a huge phase for me in my career."

Jets fans: Remember when Wheeler introduced himself to you with an 18-game scoreless drought to open the season? If you don't, he does, and says he's figured out how to come out of nightmares like those and find ways to contribute in other areas of the ice.

Helping Wheeler find his way has been Little, and the roles have been the opposite of what one would typically think when looking at them; the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Wheeler the playmaker and the smaller Little (5-foot-11, 185-pounds) the sniper.

Wheeler has 31 assists this season. With two against the Bruins, Little is now up to 16 goals.

"It seems like he can play with anyone," Little said of Wheeler. "Once he uses his size and his speed, it's hard to stop him. He's a really fast guy and (we saw) his play-making ability."

Little's second goal Friday was perfect example why Jets head coach Claude Noel kept the duo together this season. Wheeler was able to corral a loose puck in the corner of the Bruins zone and with one quick glance, knew exactly what Little was going to do. He drove to the net, and found the puck on his stick for just a second before lifting it over Boston netminder Tuukka Rask.

Noel was impressed with Wheeler's game Friday -- and not just because of the three-point effort.

The big winger spent most of his evening going up against the even bigger Zdeno Chara, one of the best defenceman in the NHL. Wheeler didn't shy away from the challenge, the coach told reporters after the game, believing that the Jets forward took another step in his development.

"To me, Wheeler played like he wasn't going to be denied in this game," Noel said. "That's a really good step for him to prove to himself and his teammates that there's no doubt that this guy looks like he's going to have a real good career.

"He looks like a top six forward to me right now."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2012 C2

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