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Some of the best hockey of Nikolaj Ehlers’ season came earlier in the year while skating on the No. 1 line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. And so the flashy Winnipeg Jets winger was thrilled to get a return engagement Saturday night against Nashville.
“I think I played some real good hockey when I played with those two. And then I got injured and then I got back, and I haven’t really gotten back to that level yet. All of it is on me,” Ehlers said prior to facing the Predators. “I gotta get back to playing that way that I did before the injury. With those two, the passes they make, the reads, the plays, all that, they’re two great players. I’m going to do my best to get back to where I was. It’s got to start now.”
Ehlers lost his top spot after suffering a shoulder injury on Jan. 4 in Pittsburgh following a hit from Sidney Crosby. He returned to action last month but had been on the second line, with four goals and four assists in 14 games.
“Anybody that would play with Mark and Blake kind of plays their best hockey. And that was true for (Patrik Laine), not in a goal-scoring point of view but in a quality of game, that was his best. And for Nikky, that was December when he played there. That was his best run,” said coach Paul Maurice.
Laine dropped down to the second line Saturday with Kevin Hayes and Kyle Connor, moving back to the right wing from the left. The line made a huge impact in Winnipeg’s 5-0 victory over Nashville, as Connor scored three times and Hayes had a goal and three assists.
“Looking just at stats and chances for we feel that Patty would get more over on the right side. One thing he hasn’t done is played with a left-handed centre (like Hayes) on the right side. Kyle Connor’s got a really developed two-way game and an awful lot of speed, and it’s a certain kind, he’s such a straight-line guy, can get in on the forecheck. We’d like to get Patty back to a place where he’s done a big bulk of his scoring has come on the right side, so we want to look at that,” Maurice said before the game.
“And then those three guys (Ehlers, Connor, Laine) over a longer period of time, hopefully some playoff hockey, will end up getting rotated. Because now we have a comfort level what the three of them look like. We have a general idea what the three of them look like. What we don’t have a bigger base on is what Hayes looks like with the different wingers, so we’d like to get a look at that.”
The Jets traded some skill for grit Saturday as Matt Hendricks replaced Jack Roslovic in the lineup. According to Maurice, it’s about playing a certain style in the fourth-line role that Roslovic has been in most recently.
“I don’t know that Jack has to show me a whole heck of a lot. We know what kind of player he is. He’s had a good season, made really good improvements. He’s got two even-strength goals, though, for a skill guy, so it’s not quite there yet. But we’re not counting on him. We’re not pinning our season on him scoring every night. He’s got to compete like that fourth line style of game, and he’s done it in the past and he’s had a few off nights,” said Maurice.
Roslovic hasn’t scored in 21 games, with five assists during that time. As for Hendricks, Maurice was impressed by what he saw from the veteran when he was in the lineup last Monday in Los Angeles, also in place of Roslovic.
“He played as well his game here as he did all of last year. But we’re going to get into two real physical, heavy teams (Nashville and then Monday against Dallas) and we wanted to make sure we have a bit of that in the lineup,” said Maurice.
There was some good news Saturday on the injury front.
First, Laurent Brossoit isn’t dealing with anything too serious after pulling himself from Thursday’s game in Vegas with a lower-body ailment.
“Off a test (Friday) we’ll just list him as day-to-day, and hope it’s not too long,” said Maurice. Eric Comrie, up from the Manitoba Moose, backed up Connor Hellebuyck who made his 56th start of the season Saturday.
Maurice said he’d like to give Hellebuyck some rest in the final seven games of the season, but how much depends on how meaningful those contests are.
“Only one set of back-to-back (left), and then left some wiggle room, depending on how the standings are shaping up and the situation we’re in. So he’s going to get real close to that number, 60 or 65 (starts) was probably the window at the start of the season. And we’re probably closer to 60.”
As for defencemen Dustin Byfuglien (ankle) and Josh Morrissey (shoulder), both skated on their own Saturday morning prior to the main group hitting the ice.
“Buff’s been on the ice since Wednesday. He skates, if he feels real good the next day, he’ll start thinking about morning skates and start building toward contact. Josh is still a ways from that contact part of it, but he’s back full-on skating now. He won’t come off the ice now because he’ll be back as a full skater, and we’ll get him into gold (non-contact jersey) here in the near future,” said Maurice.
He expects Byfuglien to return to action before the regular-season ends two weeks from now, while Morrissey may be more of a long-shot.
“I’m thinking we’re not going to push it. Talking to him this morning, he said, ‘I feel great for this time of year.’ We’d much rather have him play right now, but he plays big and heavy minutes. So his legs are strong and he’s feeling pretty good,” said Maurice.
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.