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This article was published 9/11/2018 (847 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sure, the Colorado Avalanche have one of the best top lines in the NHL. But Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler served up one heck of a reminder Friday night that whatever group he happens to be skating with isn’t too shabby, either.
Wheeler had a career-high five points as the Jets skated to an impressive 5-2 victory over their division rivals at Bell MTS Place. Winnipeg improves to 9-5-1 on the season. Colorado drops to 7-6-3 in losing for a fifth straight game, four of them in regulation.
"Blake took it to another level. He’s a guy that drives our bus every single day in practice, in the gym and basically in every aspect of being a professional hockey player. He’s the guy that we follow," said defenceman Josh Morrissey, who revealed he had an inkling Wheeler was about to erupt.
"I drove to the game with him and you could tell he was ready to go. He’s a big guy that has so much skill and competes so hard. Like I said," said Morrissey.
Coming into the night, all of the talk was about the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. But Winnipeg’s big guns came to play, not only silencing Colorado’s weapons but chipping in with plenty of offence of their own.
It all revolved around Wheeler. He set up Kyle Connor’s power-play goal midway through the opening frame, set up Mark Scheifele’s one-timer tally a few minutes later, set up Nikolaj Ehlers for the game-winner early in the third, set up Patrik Laine’s power-play tally a few minutes later then sealed the victory with an empty-netter of his own.
"Well, the weapons we have are pretty special. I’m the guy getting them the puck. They make the passer look good," Wheeler said following the game.
"You come into games like this, divisional opponent at home, and your mindset is to find a way to get a way to get a win. You’re not so much thinking about offence or how you’re going to score goals or make plays, you want to win. These games are so important. And they add up quick towards the end of the year."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said earlier in the day he wasn’t sure what to expect from his team, which hadn’t played in a full week following the Global Series in Helsinki. But the Jets came flying out of the game with perhaps their best first period of the season, then followed it up with 40 more solid minutes.
"We were hard and sharp right from the start," said Maurice.
"Morrissey and (Jacob) Trouba were very strong and all of those D who ended up going out against (the top line), that had a big part of it. But we played a pretty good five-man defensive game. We had a block there early in the third where we weren’t quite as strong, but other than that, all five were in on all pucks. We didn’t let them turn it into a one-on-one game or cause an awful lot of confusion because they beat somebody one on one and then all of those seams open. It was a really strong five-man game against them."
Connor Hellebuyck wasn’t tested a ton, but the Jets goaltender was sharp when needed in turning aside 28 shots.
Rantanen, currently the NHL’s leading scorer, did ring a shot off the crossbar on a second period power play but that’s as close as he and his linemates would come on the night. Winnipeg went a perfect four-for-four on the penalty kill, while going two-for-four on their own power plays.
Connor needed just eight seconds to score on his team’s first man-advantage, knocking a loose puck past Semyon Varlamov for his seventh of the year. That makes 11 straight games the Jets have scored a power-play goal, which extends a franchise record.
Winnipeg also snapped a dubious streak by not taking the game’s first penalty for the first time in 11 games.
Scheifele then scored his seventh of the season just over three minutes later, one-timing a pass from Wheeler past Varlamov.
Colorado defenceman Erik Johnson cut the deficit in half early in the third when he beat Hellebuyck high, but Winnipeg quickly responded when Wheeler stole a puck, patiently waited out an Avalanche defender and then fed Ehlers for his third goal of the year.
"That pass that he made to Nikky was unbelievable, just dangling that dollar bill in front of the D and then making them bite and sliding it over. It’s fun to watch," said Scheifele.
That proved to be the game-winner as Tyson Jost scored with just over 13 minutes left to make it a one-goal game.
But the Jets stormed back when Wheeler fed Laine from his usual spot on the power play, as the Finnish sniper scored his team-leading eighth of the year — and fifth in his past three games. This time, it took the power play just seven seconds to strike.
"The guys that shoot like Scheif and Patty are incredibly rare. And you stack them up on one power play, it’s really hard to stop that. It’s really hard to take away both guys. So I think we’re just trying to move it quick," Wheeler said of the now No. 1-ranked power-play unit in the NHL, which is clicking at a 34.8 per cent success rate through 15 games.
Wheeler showed he can score, too, when he hit an empty net with less than two minutes to play for his third of the year.
Wheeler’s four assists give him 18 on the year, second-best in the NHL. He’s got 14 in his past seven games and extended his point streak to nine games (two goals, 15 assists).
"He’s one of the best passers in the game right now and tonight the guys were just putting it in. You can think of countless times where he sets up guys for back-door tap-ins, 10 a night, and guys just don’t bury. Tonight was one of those nights where guys buried on half of them… he’s a special player and I’m pretty lucky to have him on my wing," said Scheifele.
Winnipeg is 15-1-1 in their past 17 regular-season games at home dating back to last season. They’ll continue a four-game homestand by hosting New Jersey on Sunday evening, followed by visits next week from Washington and Buffalo.
Defenceman Dmitry Kulikov was injured late in the first period after taking a hard hit from Colorado’s Gabriel Bourque. He went immediately to the dressing room, favouring either a shoulder or arm, and did not return.
"I’ve got nothing for you right now. He couldn’t return. It might be precautionary. We’ll get it tested out (Saturday)," Maurice said following the game.
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.