COLUMBUS — Blake Wheeler had to think for a few seconds. And go all the way back to his days as a high-school hockey star in Minnesota to remember the last time he accomplished such a milestone.
The stakes were considerably higher, the opposition much stronger on Sunday night as the veteran Winnipeg Jets winger scored a career-best four times to lead his team to an impressive 5-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"That’s why he’s the captain. You see the leadership right when I stepped in. Everyone rallies behind him. He’s vocal but obviously he's a leader and you follow him," said defenceman Nathan Bealieu, who joined the team at last week's trade deadline and recorded his first points with the Jets by assisting on two of Wheeler's goals.
Wheeler has become known for his play-making abilities, sitting second in the NHL in assists this season. But he reminded everyone on Sunday night he still has the ability to light the lamp, with numbers 14, 15, 16 and 17.
"You want to contribute. That’s the biggest thing. I think that’s the goal for our line every night, to contribute in such fashion. Obviously the score sheet is part of our job. I think we pride ourselves on all the little details in the game. So that’s the rewarding part, making an impact, trying to get the good feeling in this room, continuing on this road trip. Some great games by the guys I’m playing with," said Wheeler.
The Jets were facing a desperate opponent in a tough environment to kick off a difficult four-game road trip, but followed up an impressive Friday night win over Nashville with another solid performance, this time in enemy territory at Nationwide Arena.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck returned from sick bay to make 40 saves.
"I thought we had everything. We had guys who paid the price, guys scoring and we stuck to our game the entire time," said Hellebuyck.
Indeed, coach Paul Maurice and several players pointed to a moment near the midway point of the game as a turning point. Forward Mark Scheifele had just been rocked with what looked like a knee-on-knee hit by Nick Foligno and was slow to get up. Defenceman Dmitry Kulikov stepped up to fight Foligno, taking 17 minutes in penalties (an instigator, a major and a misconduct).
"It shows this locker room is bonding and we care for each other and are willing to fight for each other. That’s a huge play and I think we got a bunch of momentum from it," said Hellebuyck.
"We’re going to score enough goals, we’ve got enough talent offensively, but that’s how you win. With stuff like that," added Wheeler. "Stepping in for a teammate and fighting a guy who is a big, strong man, that goes a long way. Those are the types of guys you want to go into battle with. Hats off to (Kulikov). That’s a huge impact for us."
Winnipeg had a rough February, winning just four times in a dozen games (4-6-2). But they've started March on the right foot with two big wins and improve to 39-22-4, remaining one point ahead of Nashville on top of the Central Division. The Blue Jackets remain two points out of the final Eastern Conference wildcard playoff spot at 36-26-3, despite loading up at the trade deadline with several big additions.
Defenceman Sami Niku got things off to a strong start when his point shot got through a maze of traffic and past Sergei Bobrovsky just 2:21 into the game. It's the first goal of the season for Niku, and the second of his young NHL career.
Columbus tied it near the midway mark of the period when Foligno banged home a loose puck from the slot with his team on the power play. Artemi Panarin's shot hit Ben Chiarot in the leg, and Foligno pounced on it.
Winnipeg had another good beginning to the second period as Wheeler got his first of the game, deflecting a Kulikov point shot just 35 seconds into the frame.
"Blake leads all of the things that we do. He knows what playoff hockey is all about. He knows he’s got to get the puck to the net and he knows that our forwards have got to go to the net. The first goal is the same concept, right? Shot from the point, but we’ve got two guys right in line on the screen, so we’re starting to go to the net a little heavy," said Maurice.
The Blue Jackets responded with just over two minutes left in the period, taking advantage of a tired group of Jets skaters caught on the ice for an extended shift. Seth Jones beat Hellebuyck with a slap shot to tie it.
Defencemen Jacob Trouba and Niku were the most gassed after what NHL officials recorded as a marathon 3:35 minute shift.
You could say the Jets had the Blue Jackets right where they wanted them in being tied after two periods. Winnipeg began the night 13-0-1 in games deadlocked through 40 minutes this season.
Wheeler helped add to that total when he struck again at 7:44 of the third, this time with a nifty tip off a Beaulieu shot beat Bobrovsky that proved to the game-winner. He scored his third of the night with 2:13 left, taking a great Patrik Laine pass and going bar-down for the hat trick. And then he added his fourth into an empty-net in the final minute.
"That’s what I think this team’s built on. Playing against them was never fun because you feel like they’re always in it. Being part of it, it’s a great boost of confidence being involved. With the skill level and these type of guys, you’re never really out of a hockey game. I thought we showed a lot of character," said Beaulieu.
The road trip continues Tuesday in Tampa when the Jets take on the league-leading Lightning. That's followed by stops in Carolina Friday and Washington Sunday.
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.
Updated on Sunday, March 3, 2019 at 10:28 PM CST: Write-thru
March 4, 2019 at 12:30 PM: fixes mistake in cutline