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Nikolaj Ehlers witnessed first-hand a year ago how one or two players can tip the scales of an NHL playoff series.
The speedy Winnipeg forward says he wants to carry a heavier load this spring as the Jets begin their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Ehlers will skate on the right side of centre Kevin Hayes on the second forward unit, with Mathieu Perreault on the left wing Wednesday in Game 1 of Winnipeg’s opening-round playoff series with the St. Louis Blues.
Puck drop is 7 p.m. at Bell MTS Place.
The top trio of centre Mark Scheifele and wingers Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler — which combined for 92 goals and 241 points during the 2018-19 regular season — must produce for the Jets to continue their post-season flight, but contributions from the Hayes line would be a valuable complement.
Ehlers scored in back-to-back games to end the season, raising his total to 21 in 62 games. But he had just six since returning from an injury Feb. 22 and desperately wants to be a bigger contributor, particularly since he suited up for 15 playoff games last season but failed to score.
“It sucks when you don’t score. You want to score. You want to help the team,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I want to say I saved them, but I played as hard as I could to help this team win and, hopefully, I can sneak one in there this year.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself, my game. Not so much about producing, but playing the right way. And I feel my game has gotten a lot better since the beginning when I came back from my injury. I’ve got to keep that going and take it another step, because I know that’s what the other guys in here are going to do. I’m ready.”
A year ago, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien single-handedly demolished the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the playoffs. He administered some punishing hits, crushing Mikael Granlund along the wall and catapulting Mikko Koivu behind the net, played huge minutes and set up some crucial goals to guide the Jets to a series win in five games.
In Round 2, Scheifele fired seven goals, all of coming at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, as the Jets knocked off the Predators four games to three. He holds the NHL record for most road goals scored in a single series in Stanley Cup playoff history.
Ultimately, Winnipeg ran out of steam in the Western Conference final, opening with a victory against Vegas but losing the next four straight to the Golden Knights.
Ehlers admitted it’s impossible to predict who might step into the spotlight against the streaking Blues, who were last in the NHL on Jan. 1 but won 30 of their final 45 games — including a franchise-record 11-game winning streak — under interim head coach Craig Berube to finish third in the Central Division.
“What we did last year in the first two rounds and in the first game against Vegas, we put together some really good hockey. We did that as a team, and sometimes some guys stand out,” said Ehlers. “But everybody was producing, everybody was helping this team in some way to win. That’s what we need to keep doing this year, because you’re not going to win with just a couple players.
“It’s going to be exciting. Everybody’s ready for this.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said he’s seeing a far more engaged Ehlers in recent weeks than the player that darted around the ice without much to show for it upon his return from an upper-body injury sustained Jan. 4 in Pittsburgh when he was hit by Penguins star centre Sidney Crosby.
And the timing, frankly, couldn’t be better — as long as the Danish-born forward’s commitment to hard work exceeds the level he showed during those stretches of invisibility in the ’18 playoffs.
“You have to experience it — the level of hockey you experience in the playoffs is so much different than the regular season. It has to be. You can’t play playoff hockey for eight months, there would be no players left. You learned what to expect in the change in the game,” said Maurice.
“I felt his game, he wasn’t happy after he came back off injury, but in the last week he started to look like he did just prior to his injury. A more veteran player, a more competitive player.”
Hayes was acquired from the New York Rangers by the Jets on Feb. 25 in a deal for a 2019 first-round pick, left-winger Brendan Lemieux and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2022. He arrived with 14 goals and 28 assists in 51 games, and has kept that pace going in a Jets jersey with five goals and seven helpers in 20 games.
While 34 games of post-season experience is a bonus, Hayes was pursued to bolster the Jets’ production up the middle, potentially lighting a fire under either Ehlers or Patrik Laine.
Maurice said the 6-5, 215-pound centre has fit the bill.
“The advantage in your lineup isn’t always with your top line. Everybody’s got a good top line. (The question is) what can you produce after those top lines saw off? We’ve really liked Perreault, Hayes and Ehlers as a group. They’re exciting,” he said.
“Matty Perreault brings a certain energy to the game and Nikky feeds off that, and there’s a lot of speed that goes into it.
“With Kevin, he can move the puck and he can make plays, but having some speed to play with is good for him, it helps his game. We like the line.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).