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This article was published 9/5/2018 (1104 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Patrik Laine wasted no time making his mark in the playoffs, lighting the lamp in each of his first two games against the Minnesota Wild in the first round. Kyle Connor had his big breakout moment earlier this series in leading his team to a big Game 5 victory over the Nashville Predators with a pair of goals and an assist.
Now the spotlight is shining bright on another young Winnipeg Jets star in Nikolaj Ehlers, who has yet to put a puck in the net through 10 post-season games after doing so 29 times during the regular season, which was third-best on the team behind Laine and Connor.
With the season on the line Thursday night in Tennessee, Ehlers is hoping his time is about to arrive.
"It’s all part of the NHL. Every player in here goes through a slump. I’m not calling this a slump, but everybody goes through a phase where you’re not scoring. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad player. It just means that they’re not going in for you right now, but you can still help this team win. And that’s what I’m trying to do," Ehlers said Wednesday following his team's practice before flying to Nashville.
Head coach Paul Maurice has bounced Ehlers around the lineup in recent games, looking to get the 22-year-old going. He was moved off his usual line with Laine and Paul Stastny up to the top unit with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele for a stint. And he was moved down to a trio with Bryan Little and Joel Armia in Game 6 against the Predators.
"It’s not all about me. You know, coach puts me in where he thinks I can play at my best, with or without scoring. And I go in, I play with every single one of these guys throughout the last three years. So it doesn’t do anything to me. I’m going out there and playing the way I know I can. And try to help this team win. If that’s on the first or the third or the fourth or the second line, I don’t care," said Ehlers, who has chipped in with five assists.
"We’ve scored enough goals. I’m working out there every single day to get better. And that doesn’t mean I only get better by scoring five goals in the next four games. We’ve been scoring enough, I’m trying as hard as I can to help this team win. If it comes, it comes."
Winnipeg could certainly have used his offence in Game 6, when they were blanked 4-0 on home ice to force the winner-take-all showdown in Music City. The Jets went 0-for-4 on the power play, including three first-period chances when they were just down by a goal.
Ehlers said he's been trying to focus on all the other parts of his game during this drought. He scored just once in his final eight regular-season games as well, meaning he's scored once in his past 18 games. He's only taken 15 shots in 10 playoff games, down from his average of nearly three per game during the regular season (231 in 82 games).
"Do everything else right. Skate, play simple, play fast. Play good defensively. Everything. Play our game plan. That’s something, when it’s not going in for you, you can still play great games. But as a team I think we’ve played some really good hockey. And (Thursday) we have to do that again," said Ehlers.
It's worth noting Ehlers did miss Game 5 against Minnesota with either an injury or an ailment that neither the player nor Maurice were willing to talk about beyond calling it "malaise." Perhaps he's still battling something that could be impacting his play.
Maurice was asked Wednesday if Ehlers has more to offer than he's shown so far.
"This is true of all players... at times, yes. We're looking for a real heavy amount of consistency in that (Thursday)," he said, while cautioning it's about much more than hitting the scoresheet.
"The scoring of goals isn't the story of a player's game. So true in the playoffs and the team that wins the Stanley Cup is going to have two months of hockey, high-level hockey. Even just look at our month, the number of different players that have been the story. Connor (Hellebuyck) in games, Kyle Connor's big night, Brandon Tanev. Everybody, to get to where we need to, is going to have to share in writing part of that story," said Maurice.
"He hasn't scored yet. We think he can be a huge contributor to either the line scoring or the team winning. I don't look at that and judge a player's play by it. You know, we've had guys who maybe had off nights put the puck in the net and felt pretty good about themselves after. There's lots he can do to influence the game around scoring a goal, but for the individual, especially young players who are scorers, they come in feeling that's the best thing I can bring to the team, so he's looking for it."
As for moving Ehlers around to various lines, Maurice said it's not strictly performance-based.
"A number of those have nothing to do with him. Either the matchup we're running against or another player looking for a different look on one of your other two lines," he said.
Ehlers has played in elimination games before in junior and during his one pro season in Switzerland and said he's ready for the big challenge ahead.
"Extremely exciting. This is what we’ve worked for the last couple of years, and Game 7 is always exciting. Going out there, playing the way I know I can, do my best and skate as much as I can. We all know what needs to be done," said Ehlers.
"We stick with our game, we stick with our game plan, everyone sticks together. It’s how we need to play. We need to play our game, we need to play the way we have the whole year. If we can do that, we win games. This team is great (Nashville), but we know we can do it. And we’re ready for it."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.