February 23, 2018

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Winnipeg plans to keep winning with Scheifele

Life without No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele was surprisingly fruitful, to the point that Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice dropped a bombshell as he greeted the media following practice Thursday.

“We’re trading him,” Maurice deadpanned.

He was kidding, of course. But the way the Jets not only survived, but actually thrived, without the services of Scheifele was nothing short of amazing. They went 11-2-3 in his time on the injury list, a span that has them in better position now then when he went down on Dec. 27 with an upper-body injury.

Winnipeg now gets to see if they can continue their winning ways as Scheifele returns to the lineup tonight when the Jets host the St. Louis Blues in a Central Division match at Bell MTS Place. It’s the fifth game of a 10-game homestand.

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Life without No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele was surprisingly fruitful, to the point that Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice dropped a bombshell as he greeted the media following practice Thursday.

"We’re trading him," Maurice deadpanned.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>"He's one of the best players in the league. He's a big part of our room, a leader on the team. You put a guy like that back into a team that's already winning, it's just even better," said defenceman Ben Chiarot.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"He's one of the best players in the league. He's a big part of our room, a leader on the team. You put a guy like that back into a team that's already winning, it's just even better," said defenceman Ben Chiarot.

He was kidding, of course. But the way the Jets not only survived, but actually thrived, without the services of Scheifele was nothing short of amazing. They went 11-2-3 in his time on the injury list, a span that has them in better position now then when he went down on Dec. 27 with an upper-body injury.

Winnipeg now gets to see if they can continue their winning ways as Scheifele returns to the lineup tonight when the Jets host the St. Louis Blues in a Central Division match at Bell MTS Place. It’s the fifth game of a 10-game homestand.

"We’ve been saying, maybe we just keep you out until things go a little sideways," defenceman Ben Chiarot joked Thursday, before heaping praise on Scheifele and what he means to the club.

"You can’t say enough about him. He’s one of the best players in the league. He’s a big part of our room, a leader on the team. You put a guy like that back into a team that’s already winning, it’s just even better," he said.

Winnipeg is 32-13-9, with a one-point cushion over the Nashville Predators for first place in the division. St. Louis is 32-20-3, which leaves them in third place, six points behind the Jets pending the result of their Thursday night home game against the Colorado Avalanche. They split a pair of meetings in mid-December, with the Blues winning 2-0 on home ice, and the Jets responding with a 4-0 win the next night in their rink.

Maurice didn’t hesitate in immediately putting Scheifele back with captain Blake Wheeler on the top line, along with sniper Patrik Laine, to take on the Blues. Wheeler has been filling in at centre for the Jets since Scheifele went down, and Maurice had previously said he would consider keeping him at that position and on a different line.

"In order for me to consider it harder, I think we would have had to have a fairly healthy lineup on the wings as well," Maurice said. "Blake going into the middle now is kind of a place that we can go if we need to. But I’ll put him back there (right wing), those two guys have such great chemistry."

Maurice said the silver lining to Scheifele’s injury was discovering several things about his team, not the least of which was how well Wheeler can handle increased responsibilities. Wheeler had five goals and 11 assists in the 16 games without Scheifele, a point-per-game pace. That’s not much off the nine goals and 33 assists he posted in 38 games with Scheifele in the lineup. He also won 49.6 per cent of his faceoffs.

"After Mark went down, a bunch of good things happened for us. Blake’s play in the middle, Bryan Little’s line, their role got changed and when they came off the bench got changed, they play against the other team’s best," said Maurice, who called Wheeler a "Hart Trophy candidate" as most valuable player in the league.

"We survived this because of him and his leadership," Maurice said. "We thought Blake would do a good job in that middle. We’d seen it a couple games, we knew he would try real hard. But we didn’t know, and how could you, that he would be as good as he was in the middle."

Wheeler said Thursday the return of his longtime linemate will bring plenty of energy into a dressing room that is already feeling pretty good these days, despite a rash of injuries they’ve managed to navigate.

"On the ice, that makes it really exciting. What he brings to the room, just his enthusiasm for the game, is going to be welcomed back. He comes to the rink every day, works incredibly hard and brings a great attitude to the rink every day, a great voice on the bench," Wheeler said. "I’m pretty excited about the opportunity to play with him again."

Wheeler admits his team’s performance without Scheifele exceeded his expectations, and he doesn’t worry about any kind of letdown with his return.

"Terrified isn’t the right word, but I was concerned about how it would work," he said. "Obviously we’ve kept the ship afloat while he’s been out. I haven’t sensed any complacency in our team since the first day of the season. If anything, you look around our room, we’re pretty beat up right now. Just because we got one guy back doesn’t mean we’re all right here."

The temporary move to centre might have another positive spinoff; Wheeler said it’s possible he could be a more well-rounded player as a result.

"You learn how important it is for your wingers to battle on the wall for you and get pucks out. As a centreman, it can be tedious and frustrating when you have to keep stopping and turning back because those darn wingers can’t get the puck out," he said.

"I think, today, we feel that me on the right wing and (Scheifele) at centre and having us together gives us the best chance to win. That may change. That’s an ongoing conversation."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Read more by Mike McIntyre.

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