On a team filled with offensive talent, it can be a struggle for some members of the Winnipeg Jets to capture centre stage.
But peek behind the curtain a bit and there you will find Mason Appleton quietly stealing the show. Look no further than Tuesday night, where Appleton opened the scoring in the first period, then played a pivotal role in another to help lead the Jets to a 5-2 win over the visiting Vancouver Canucks.
"I liked this game. As a line, I thought we got back to what we did good as well," Appleton said after the game. "I think last couple of games I didn’t love but tonight got back to what I do best and what we do best as a line, we had a lot of sustained offensive zone time and scored a big goal. The game felt good."
Appleton, 25, is having a career year, even if his numbers have been modest so far through his young NHL career. His goal Tuesday — a converted rebound off an Adam Lowry shot — marked a personal high, with six. Appleton had five goals in 46 games during the 2019-20 campaign; this season, his sixth came in game No. 22.
The Green Bay native also eclipsed a career-high for points in a season last week, after setting up the game-winning goal to Nate Thompson in a 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night. It was Appleton’s 11th point – he had 10 points in 36 games during the 2018-19 season — and it included winning a puck battle in the corner before feeding Thompson in the slot.
"You’ve got to take care of your end first and you build that trust and from there you got to sustain offensive zone time and you make several plays down there and you score easy goals and that’s a product of the goal we scored," Appleton said. "It started in our own end, and we got a rush and took advantage of it. For us as a line, we pride ourselves in being really responsible defensively but at the same time we think we can all score goals."
While Appleton isn’t likely to contend with Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers or Kyle Connor for the team’s scoring leader, he’s also not expected to. As one part of the Jets dominant checking line, along with centre Lowry and fellow winger Andrew Copp, Appleton’s role on most nights is to prevent the other team’s best from scoring. He’s also a part of the club’s penalty-kill units.
"He’s really developed into accepting a style of play that he can excel at. So it’s different than the Nikolaj Ehlers or Kyle Connor, right? It’s a different style of game. Killing penalties, playing with Adam, they play against the other team’s best an awful lot. And there’s offence there, it’s just going to look different. It’s going to be a different style," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said.
"Tonight was a perfect example. Drive the net twice, once for a goal, once for a drawn penalty that leads to a goal. That’s real offence. That’s not a less-skilled offensive game. As a matter of fact, as the games become, as you move close and closer to the playoffs and into the playoffs, that’s the style of game that’s played and he should be able to excel in that."
Often a thankless job, the opportunity to chip in on the score sheet is a welcomed bonus. Appleton certainly has the scoring chops; he scored 22 goals and recorded 44 assists for 66 points in 76 games for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose in 2017-18.
"You go into every season, you always want more. So I’m still a young player in this league; my opportunity’s here and I’m trying to take advantage of it every night," Appleton said.
"I’m playing more minutes and that gives me more confidence and lets my game evolve. You don’t just get bigger, faster, stronger overnight. It’s a product of years and a product of opportunity. I’ve really liked my development path and I’m going to keep my foot on the gas and keep trying to get better every single day."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.