Determined Dane dismisses drought Ehlers simplifying game, not worrying about playoff-scoring goose egg
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/07/2020 (1054 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Nikolaj Ehlers would dearly love to pick up right where he left off when the fifth season of his NHL career came to a sudden halt in March.
What the skilled, speedy Winnipeg Jets forward doesn’t want is to pick up where he left off the last time the Winnipeg Jets competed in the playoffs. Or, for that matter, the time before that.
Ehlers suited up for 15 of 17 games during the team’s terrific post-season run in 2018 and skated in all six matchups last year in a first-round defeat to the St. Louis Blues, the eventual 2019 Stanley Cup champions. He was goalless in those 21 contests.
But the 24-year-old Dane is coming off a third 25-goal campaign (in just 71 games), including five tallies in his last 11 games and two in the Jets’ final three outings. He was flying before the COVID-19 shutdown, exhibiting some chemistry with centre Cody Eakin and right-winger Patrik Laine.
Ehlers is eager to dive into some meaningful hockey after a nearly five-month pause no one wanted and hasn’t spent time fretting about the drought.
“Not (thinking about it) at all. It is what it is,” he said after the squad’s morning skate Tuesday at the Iceplex. “Obviously, I like to score but I like to think I’m doing whatever I can and as much as I can to help this team win. And if that means not scoring, then that’s it. But I feel confident in myself and I know the goals will come.”
The Jets are nearly a week-and-a-half through summer training camp as they prepare for a best-of-five qualifying-round series against the Calgary Flames. Game 1 is set for a 9:30 p.m. puck drop Aug. 1 in Edmonton.
Ehlers performing at his electrifying best and flashing an ability to finish during the regular season would serve the Central Division club well in its chase for NHL supremacy. But the main ingredient has to be a commitment to hard work.
“I feel confident in myself and I know the goals will come.” – Nikolaj Ehlers
He certainly demonstrated more of a willingness to get his hands dirty in the offensive zone, both receiving and administering some punishment to make plays before the season was shut down. And he’s far more apt to engage in puck battles in the corner than earlier in his pro career.
Ehlers said he’s figured out the simpler play might not make the evening highlight reel but tends to produce positive results with far more regularity.
“Make it easy for ourselves; in practice a couple of times here in the last week and a half, we’ve kind of seen what we can do and what we can’t do. When we’ll just put the puck down and get after it, that’s when we’ve been able to create zone time and create chances for ourselves,” he said.
“There’s going to be time when we’ll make our plays… but most of our zone time in practice has been from just skating and chipping the puck and getting in. I think we’ve found a way to get in and get that zone time.
“We’ve been able to create some chemistry and it worked for us before this long break and I think at practices it’s gotten better and better. So, it’s exciting playing with (Eakin and Laine) and we’re just going to keep working on what we do best and creating that chemistry.”
Ehlers doesn’t benefit from first-unit time on the power play, which only adds some sparkle to his 21 even-strength goals. Exactly 20 of his NHL counterparts scored more than he did with their clubs at even-strength, led by Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews and Washington Capitals left-winger Alex Ovechkin (tied at 35). Jets winger Kyle Connor was fourth in the league with 28.
Head coach Paul Maurice said there’s often a grace period afforded to young players bursting with offensive upside but lacking the dedication to grind it out. The reprieve, however, is short.
The Jets coaching staff has worked extensively with Ehlers to get him to play a brand of hockey that works in all situations, said Maurice, noting he fully expects results when the play-in series begins.
“Nik Ehlers, at times this year, played a style of hockey that he will score in the playoffs with. And that was addressed with him. We’re doing our video today on some forechecking stuff and there are two or three clips (of Ehlers) finishing checks and being hard on plays. That’s all part of the growth of a player,” he said.
“Nik would be a prime example of a guy that now has an understanding that you’re not just skating around in the playoffs making pretty plays and those go in. You’ve got to get the puck and you’re going to have to take it off people and when you get it, somebody is coming hard to get it from you.
“(This year) he played with a bunch of different people but he drove a lot harder. He was dynamic but he was more multi-faceted in his game. He came into the league and was almost a perimeter speed player — one and done-ish. Now, you’re starting to see him keep pucks alive, get in on the forecheck, understanding the defensive parts of the game, too. A little heavier on the walls, a little more confidence to control the puck on the walls. That’s the natural progression of all players.”
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).