Stepping up when a man down

Armia proving himself with strong short-handed play

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If penalty killing is an NHL art form, Joel Armia looks like he’s apprenticing to become a key figure on a Winnipeg Jets unit that requires more than just a few touch-ups.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/03/2017 (2068 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If penalty killing is an NHL art form, Joel Armia looks like he’s apprenticing to become a key figure on a Winnipeg Jets unit that requires more than just a few touch-ups.

He’s someone who needs a niche, too, because goals don’t come easy for the 23-year-old right-winger, even though he’s netted a few gems in his young career. His game-tying short-handed tally Tuesday night in New Jersey was a combination of skill, tenacity and taking advantage of some shabby checking by a trio of Devils on a sequence early in the third period.

Armia outworked Taylor Hall for the puck in the Jets’ end, skated down the right wall, eluded a hit from Damon Severson and a lazy stick check from Kyle Palmieri before ripping a shot by goalie Cory Schneider to knot the game 3-3. (Patrik Laine lifted the Jets to a 4-3 win with the only goal of the shootout.)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILE Winnipeg Jets winger Joel Armia has been earning his keep on the penalty kill.

It was Armia’s ninth goal in 52 games this season and his third with the Jets a man short. He was inclined to simply lob the puck into the New Jersey zone but kept advancing when the Devils offered little more than glancing checks.

“First thing was I tried to get it deep, but then the guys sort of like passed me,” Armia said in a post-game interview Tuesday.

“I don’t think they were going for the body, they were going for the puck.

“I’ve been trying to improve my PK a lot, really, that’s the thing. When you play good defence, maybe you get chances sometimes. But it’s not about scoring goals, it’s about shutting their power-play down.”

Only the Calgary Flames incur more minor penalties than Winnipeg (294), while the Jets have faced more short-handed situations (264) than any other NHL squad. Meanwhile, there’s been no sustained salvation from the penalty-killing unit, which is second-last in the league with a 76.6 per cent efficiency rating.

Winnipeg (35-35-7) has allowed 61 power-play goals this season, tied with the Dallas Stars for most in the NHL.

There’s a hint that regular work during practice is bearing some small measure of success — the club is a perfect eight-for-eight killing penalties the past three games.

Armia sees plenty of action on the Jets’ overburdened PK and, while relatively satisfied with his contribution, believes there is still much to learn.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, I need to get a lot better,” he said. “But from last year, I think I’ve improved my game a lot in some areas, so it’s a good thing.”

Armia’s contribution has not gone unnoticed by his head coach.

Paul Maurice said the 6-3, 201-pound Finnish-born player’s continued development as a defensive forward — beginning back a few seasons as a top prospect with the Buffalo Sabres and with the Jets’ farm club in St. John’s, N.L. — makes him a valuable commodity on a team already possessing enough offensive punch.

“That was kind of the report coming in. I think everybody was waiting for that offence and hadn’t seen it. His pace wasn’t at a point where it gave him the opportunity to play with real offensive guys, but he started killing penalties in the AHL and excelling at it,” Maurice told reporters Tuesday. “And when he got a chance to kill penalties, then his five-on-five game got better. He’s almost doing the exact same thing here. He’s starting to excel at killing penalties and, when that happens, his five-on-five game will improve.”

Armia scored 18 goals and 29 points in 48 games with Porin of the Finnish Elite League during the 2010-11 campaign, prior to being drafted 16th overall by the Sabres. He would stay two more years in Finland and then play parts of two seasons with the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s AHL affiliate.

He was acquired by the Jets just over two years ago, along with Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford, junior star Brendan Lemieux and a first-round draft pick in 2015 (Jack Roslovic) for power forward Evander Kane and defenceman Zach Bogosian, along with goalie prospect Jason Kasdorf.

Armia has 13 goals in 95 games with the Jets over the past two seasons. But it’s his effectiveness as a checker and his hockey IQ that have established him as an everyday NHLer in Winnipeg, although there have been concerning stretches of inconsistency.

Maurice chalks that up to inexperience — a young player not yet fully understanding the effort that’s compulsory night in, night out.

“I think, from him, it’s compete. And it’s not that he’s not willing to, it’s the same thing that all those guys are going through. They’ve never had to do it every night, certainly not at the NHL level,” he said. “It’s all brand new, and the coach is barking at him (about) pucks out, pucks in. Those are the hard parts of our game that he needs to improve on. But he is making improvements on it.

“There’s lot there that we like and he’s just going to get better. He’s playing with Adam (Lowry) and those guys, they may not be, from a points point of view, in the Mark Scheifele development, but very few people are. They’re probably developing exactly at the pace they should, and that can be a really good pair for us.”

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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