Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wheeler still spinning

Jets winger scores twice, coming into his own as premier power forward

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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 a 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 goalpost 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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2012 B3

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