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This article was published 17/1/2019 (211 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Blake Wheeler’s 50th assist of the season bore no resemblance to the 49 that came before it. No saucer pass over a sliding defender, no seeing-eye feed through a maze of legs.
Wheeler’s helper, in fact, came Tuesday night as he sprawled to block an incoming missile from Vegas centre William Karlsson with the Golden Knights’ pressing late and the Winnipeg Jets clinging to a one-goal lead. The puck bounced to Mark Scheifele, who alertly slid it over to a streaking Kyle Connor for an easy breakaway goal into an empty cage to put Winnipeg’s latest victory to bed.
"It’s a great example of professionalism and leadership," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday.
"Blake, whatever the number is, he’s in the top two or three of assists in the NHL for quite a while. If you look at that stat alone and never watch hockey, there’s a very offensive player. A big bulk of those guys never had to develop the other part of their game because they’re going to make the team and they’re going to get paid on those numbers alone. But he is in the (Adam) Lowry, (Brandon) Tanev mould where if the other team has the puck, he’s working real, real hard to get it back. He doesn’t pass the work off to somebody else. Shot blocking, whatever it takes. He couldn’t not block a shot if he wanted to."
Wheeler occupies second spot in NHL assists with 51 (he had another on Scheifele’s empty-netter), just two back of league-leader Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning (also the NHL points leader with 75).
But personal stats are meaningless to the club’s top-line right-winger, Maurice said, adding Wheeler is the kind of role model all young players should try to emulate.
"It’s all about winning for him. We never, ever talk about points or those kinds of things. So, having a guy like that just gives you a fine example for your young players," Maurice said. "‘I want more’ is the general theme for young guys. All you gotta do is play like that guy. It’s not about points for the young guys. There would be no reason why you couldn’t block a shot like Blake."
The health of Ben Chiarot is still a question mark, so the Jets have brought back Cam Schilling to provide some insurance on the blue line.
The Manitoba Moose defenceman was called up by the NHL squad Wednesday and will join the Jets for stops in Nashville and Dallas this week.
Chiarot, injured Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks, missed Tuesday’s game against Vegas.
"No, there’s no update," Maurice said. "We’re not sure. We didn’t want to be short one (defenceman) on the trip."
Even if Chiarot remains sidelined, Schilling would be the extra blue-liner. The Jets have Josh Morrissey paired with Jacob Trouba, Dmitry Kulikov partnered with Tyler Myers and youngster Sami Niku alongside Joe Morrow.
Schilling, 30, made his Jets debut and played in four games for the club earlier this season. He recorded his first NHL point with an assist on Nov. 29 against the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s suited up for 27 games for the Moose this season and has 10 points (1G, 9A) and 16 penalty minutes.
Speaking of Kulikov, the veteran blue-liner has stood out recently for his play — and not in a negative way.
Now fully-recovered from off-season surgery, not to mention an unrelated early season injury, Kulikov is moving around with ease and confidence.
"This year, coming off the injury, he’s a much better player in my mind than last year because he was coming off almost an entire year of playing with it. Worked really hard this summer. And then there was some, I don’t know if anger’s the right word, but he seemed, when he got hurt again this year, he pushed really hard, came back earlier and was very, very determined," Maurice said.
"So, I would agree there is a difference between his play right now and his play in the past. And we hope he continues it."
For his part, Kulikov is just happy to be taking on extra responsibility with Chiarot and partner Dustin Byfuglien out of the lineup. His pairing with Myers is now second behind Morrissey and Trouba, rather than their usual third spot in the rotation.
"I love playing a lot of minutes. It feels like you’re more involved in the game, making more plays on the defensive end and in the offensive end," Kulikov said.
Winnipeg will have its very own special cheering section when they face the Predators and Stars.
The Jets organization is hosting players’ fathers (or another family member) on the trip. The larger-than-usual contingent flew to Music City after an abbreviated optional practice early Wednesday afternoon.
Brandon Tanev said he’s thrilled his dad, Mike, is joining the group.
"It’s going to be awesome to see all the smiles on all of the fathers’ faces. To experience this with them is something special," the hard-checking winger said. "We’re very appreciative of the organization for doing something like this for us."
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck said his father, Chuck, is pumped to be tagging along.
"He’s so excited about it. He knew about the trip before I did. He’s going to enjoy every second of it. He just loves seeing what we do and he loves being a part of it," Hellebuyck said. "I just want to make sure that he gets the full coverage of it. He gets to see what we do and there’s never a dull moment for him, and that’s the best I could give him."
Hellebuyck said he received no push to wear pads and patrol the crease from his dad.
"That was all on me. I don’t think any parent really wants their kid to be a goaltender. Gear’s too expensive, pucks hurt," he said, laughing. "He was just so supportive through my entire life and when I made that career choice, there was no hindrance and there was nothing holding me back."
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