April 25, 2018

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Jets' young scoring threats eager to get playoffs started

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Forward Nikolaj Ehlers at Jets practice at the MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg on Monday.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Forward Nikolaj Ehlers at Jets practice at the MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg on Monday.

Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice calls the playoffs a different animal but Jets young scoring threats Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor say they're primed and ready to face the beast head on without fear or trepidation.

The Jets are booked in for a Western Conference first-round playoff series and earned the benefit of home-ice advantage against the Minnesota Wild, their nearest NHL neighbours.

Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is set for Wednesday, 6 p.m. at Bell MTS Place.

Individually, regulars such as defencemen Dustin Byfulgien — a Stanley Cup winner in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks — and Tyler Myers and forwards Paul Stastny, Mathieu Perreault and Blake Wheeler have logged a few dozen playoff games apiece.

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Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice calls the playoffs a different animal but Jets young scoring threats Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor say they're primed and ready to face the beast head on without fear or trepidation.

The Jets are booked in for a Western Conference first-round playoff series and earned the benefit of home-ice advantage against the Minnesota Wild, their nearest NHL neighbours.

Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is set for Wednesday, 6 p.m. at Bell MTS Place.

Individually, regulars such as defencemen Dustin Byfulgien — a Stanley Cup winner in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks — and Tyler Myers and forwards Paul Stastny, Mathieu Perreault and Blake Wheeler have logged a few dozen playoff games apiece.

But as a group, the Jets have a pretty skimpy post-season resumé — four games and no victories in April 2015 against the Anaheim Ducks.

Back then, Connor and Laine hadn't even had their names called by Jets brass at the NHL draft, while Ehlers was still relatively new Winnipeg property — drafted in the first round in 2014 and ripping up the Quebec junior league that winter.

Fast forward three years and the talented youngsters have wrapped up sensational 2017-18 regular seasons, helping spark Winnipeg (52-20-10, 114 points) to a second-overall finish in the NHL standings, behind only the Central Division-rival Nashville Predators.

Maurice said there's no shielding the skilled but sophomoric skaters from the grind that's coming.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Forward Kyle Connor at Jets practice at MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg on Monday.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Forward Kyle Connor at Jets practice at MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg on Monday.

"That’s playoff hockey. It almost gets down to the simplest form of the game. It’s just as hard and as fast as you could possibly do it," said Maurice. "You take the shots that are there. I’ve got no concern with those guys trying to do more to get shots.

"We’ve played very well this year in the grinding games where there wasn’t a lot of room and it wasn’t easy to move the puck. You get to playoffs and it all looks like that."

The trio, relying on speed, playmaking and room to shoot, scored a combined 104 goals, a big chunk of the Jets' high-octane offensive machine.

But that was then. This is now, when the stakes are raised, the checking gets tighter and the physicality intensifies.

Laine, who fired 44 goals this year, behind only Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin's 49, said Monday he relishes the chance to shine under the bright lights of the post-season.

"It’s exciting times, for sure. Everybody here is looking forward to the playoffs. I’ve never been in them before in the NHL, so it’s good that I don’t have to go home, yet," Laine, who turns 20 in just more than a week, said following an up-tempo practice at Bell MTS Iceplex. "I like playoff-type games, so I think that’s going to be a good for my game.

"I’ve won championships before and I’ve played in the playoffs, so it’s not something new to me. I know what it requires to play in those types of games and I like that personally when there’s a lot of pressure and a lot on the line… I think I’m at my best with those types of games."

Laine has done wonders in big games on the international stage on behalf of his native Finland. He won a silver medal at the 2015 world under-18 championship, followed up a year later with a gold medal — and was named a tournament all-star — at the world under-20 championship, and then became the youngest Finnish player to ever play at the world men's championship a few months later, capturing the silver.

Laine's deadly when he has time and space to unleash his shot and he's most potent on the power play, leading the league with 20 goals. He anticipates some special attention from head coach Bruce Boudreau's defensively savvy Wild squad.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Patrik Laine catches his breath between drills at Jets practice, Monday.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Patrik Laine catches his breath between drills at Jets practice, Monday.

"It’s going to be a tough series, for sure," he said. "Just try to work even a little bit hard, just try to skate hard. I like playoff-type games, so I think that’s going to be a good for my game. Just try to get on the body, get on the forecheck and create some loose pucks and try to be open.

"The atmosphere is going to be different but just overall we’re going to play the same hockey like the regular season. It’s not going to change our game, even though it’s the playoffs. It’s going to get harder and faster."

Connor, 21, scored his 31st goal Saturday at home against the Chicago Blackhawks to lead all NHL rookies, while Ehlers, at 22 the elder statesman of the terrific trio, potted his 29th a week ago as the Jets concluded their road schedule against the Montreal Canadiens.

Both have speed to burn. Ehlers shifts into high gear through the neutral zone, while Connor's quickness is most evident down low, with the puck or when he's pursuing an opposing carrier.

Neither sounds worried about getting lost in the congestion Minnesota's team defensive scheme — even without injured star blue-liner Ryan Suter (ankle) — will try to initiate. The Wild are adept at limiting quality chances in five-on-five situations, and are led by strong two-way centres Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu and Matt Cullen.

"It’s not going to be easy for any player in the playoffs. It is different hockey but good players go out and find a way to make a play, even if the things you’re used to do aren’t working," said Ehlers, joined by Laine on right wing and veteran Paul Stastny up the middle.

"I know how big of a change it is to the regular season, but I think the last 10 to 15 games we have taken a step towards playoff hockey. I think all the young guys in here have gotten a little bit of experience knowing what we need to do more of, what we need to do better and what we can’t do."

The Jets' home record was 32-7-2, tops in the league. Connor said the newcomers are eager to play in front of the 'Whiteout.'

"I’m really excited. I can’t wait," he said. "The guys were talking about the last time (2015), how crazy it gets, how the fans are already packed in during warm-up, stuff like that. Guys will be fired up, for sure."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Read more by Jason Bell.

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