January 18, 2018

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Laine, Ehlers are two of a kind

Young Jets stars tied for team lead in goals scored

Trevor Hagan / The Canadian Press FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets snipers Patrik Laine (left) and Nikolaj Ehlers are tied for the team goal-scoring lead, each with 19 so far this season.</p>

Trevor Hagan / The Canadian Press FILES

Winnipeg Jets snipers Patrik Laine (left) and Nikolaj Ehlers are tied for the team goal-scoring lead, each with 19 so far this season.

CHICAGO — Anything he can do, Nikolaj can do better. Patrik can do anything better than him.

Or something like that.

The friendly rivalry between Winnipeg Jets young stars Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine is beginning to take on a life of its own, as the two share the team goal-scoring lead after Tuesday’s 7-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

Ehlers fired a pair of goals, both coming on quick releases from the left faceoff dot that found space just below the bar. Laine opened the scoring on an innocent-looking wrist shot from well out that tucked in behind a well-screened Robin Lehner in the Sabres’ net.

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CHICAGO — Anything he can do, Nikolaj can do better. Patrik can do anything better than him.

Or something like that.

The friendly rivalry between Winnipeg Jets young stars Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine is beginning to take on a life of its own, as the two share the team goal-scoring lead after Tuesday’s 7-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

Ehlers fired a pair of goals, both coming on quick releases from the left faceoff dot that found space just below the bar. Laine opened the scoring on an innocent-looking wrist shot from well out that tucked in behind a well-screened Robin Lehner in the Sabres’ net.

Both players snapped extended scoring slumps and have 19 goals apiece through 44 games of the 2017-18 NHL campaign.

The competition is most definitely on.

Ehlers, 21, from Aalborg, Denmark, plays left wing on the team’s second line with centre Bryan Little and right-winger Mathieu Perreault, and he tends to feign ignorance on the subject of who holds the scoring edge on any particular day. However, Laine, 19, from Tampere, Finland, playing on the right side on the No. 1 line with centre Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, can offer a spot-on update, if prompted.

When one’s being questioned by reporters about the battle for sniping supremacy, the other is usually lurking nearby to either defend against the dig invariably coming his way or go on the offensive and lob a verbal grenade, instead.

"I don’t even know how many goals (Laine) has right now, but he definitely knows," Ehlers said, offering a not-so-subtle shot at his buddy’s competitive side, following the win in Buffalo.

"We make fun of each other all the time. Sometimes, when he’s not doing well I chirp him and then he chirps me, so it’s all fun. I think he said I have more goals than him now, I’m not sure if that’s true."

When informed they’re all square, the explosive left-winger plucked by the Jets ninth overall in the 2014 NHL draft simply said, "I’ll get him."

Clearly, if the NHL team wasn’t chalking up victories with regularity, any public discussion between the two about their offensive statistics would be kept on the down low.

But with points in the standings being gobbled up, there’s room for some playful banter between the two Europeans that makes its way to the public.

Laine’s power-play tally, his 11th this season, came on a low shot with Connor providing the screen.

Goals matter to the second-year right-winger, who’s looking to eclipse the mark of 36 goals in 73 games he produced during a phenomenal rookie season in Winnipeg.

Laine, selected second overall in the 2016 NHL draft, knows he’s in a dead heat with his road-trip roomie and regular video-game opponent, who stands four inches shorter and is 30 pounds lighter.

His vision, like his remarkable cannon of a shot, is deadly accurate.

"I think it went straight in. I don’t care what he says, I know it went straight in," Laine said playfully, when a suggestion was made Connor might have tipped the puck before it went in Tuesday night. "But he made a nice screen."

Indeed, Laine and Ehlers, the Jets’ own version of Frick and Frack, have carved out a special bond in a city far from their homes, while still, in many respects, finding their footing in the best hockey league in the world.

Their styles couldn’t be more different.

While Ehlers tends to do his thing with plenty of pizzazz, Laine is all about pure power. The Jets organization and its fans will have years to watch and marvel at the progression of the exciting forwards.

Just days before the start of the season, Ehlers agreed to terms on a seven-year, US$42-million contract extension that should keep him in a Jets jersey until the end of the 2024-25 season.

Laine, meanwhile, completes the final season of a three-year entry-level deal at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.

If his trajectory continues as expected, he’ll be in line for the largest contract in Jets history.

Judging by what a few of the game’s brightest young stars will earn — the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid cashes in US$12.5 million a year, Sabres centre Jack Eichel earns US$10 million per, and the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl makes US$8.5 million annually — Laine’s starting ask could be US$80 million over eight years.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice noted the closeness of the talented snipers, and their commitment to push each are intangibles that make them better players and serve to strengthen a team on the fast track to success.

"They love playing in Winnipeg, playing for the Jets. To have young players come in and get off on a right track and have a friend right away, it’s no different than the first day of school for kids. You want to come in, be accepted by the group," Maurice said.

"They’ve got a real great friendship on the bench, they’re accepted by everybody else. That’s true of all of the players, but having that be a positive experience for a young player, that they have someone to play video games with and enjoy (hockey) is really important."

Winnipeg continues a three-game road trip Friday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, and then heads to St. Paul, Minn., for a Saturday night battle with the Wild.

The Jets’ league-mandated five-day break begins Sunday.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

Read more by Jason Bell .

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