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Blake Wheeler broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins and still gets a huge charge out of playing his old team.
The Winnipeg Jets captain anticipates another intense matchup tonight between squads that have carved out a somewhat of a rivalry, despite being from opposite conferences.
Winnipeg edged the Bruins 4-3 in a shootout Jan. 29 in their lone, spirited meeting this season.
Wheeler said there won’t be a lot of room to move at Bell MTS Place.
“They’re going to force us to do some things we’re not comfortable with, and we’ve got to do the same to them — not allow them to have any easy ice,” he said. “Do that for 60 minutes and we’ll see what happens.”
Boston (42-19-9) will be in a surly mood after suffering back-to-back road losses, 4-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday and 7-4 to the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday.
The Bruins, who occupy second place not only in the Atlantic Division but also the Eastern Conference, are expected to hand Tuukka Rask his 39th start between the pipes tonight.
Winnipeg (40-25-4), still first in the Central Division despite winning just four of its last 12, counters with goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Originally drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004, Wheeler opted to play three years at the University of Minnesota and signed as a free agent with the Bruins prior to the 2008-09 season. He wore black and gold until he was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers three-quarters of the way through the 2010-11 season.
The Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup that season.
Wheeler has great admiration for the organization, in particularly the top line centred by perennial Selke Trophy candidate Patrice Bergeron, one of the NHL’s finest two-way middle men.
Bergeron will skate between Brad Marchand and David Backes, who replaces injured forward David Pastrnak (thumb)
“Those guys (have) tremendous chemistry. That line is as effective as there is in the league. They play against the other teams’ best every night and they produce a ton of the offence,” said Wheeler.
“Bergie and David Krejci, two premier centres, Z (blue-liner Zdeno Charo) has been there forever, they’ve always had great goaltending; that sets them up to have a good team every year.”
Marchand fired his 29th and 30th goals of the season in Columbus and has 85 points in 69 games, tying his career-best total set in 2016-17 and again last year.
“(Marchand) is a great player, he plays extremely hard, he’s always hard on the puck. There’s never an easy inch when you play against that line,” Wheeler said. “It’s a matchup that you don’t look forward to in the sense it’s going to be an easy night, but one you look forward to because it forces you to play your best.”
The Jets will go with the same group that felt the sting of a 5-4 loss Tuesday to San Jose. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski cashed in on a two-on-one break with Timo Meier with just 4.3 seconds left in the contest.
Wheeler took a couple of inadvertent elbows to the face in that game, one from an official and another from forward Logan Couture midway through the final period. He left for what was believed to be concussion protocol but returned late in the period.
“I think they were both — it is what it is — just bad luck,” said the Jets right-winger, who missed Wednesday’s practice.
In addition to Pastrnak, the Bruins are without Jake DeBrusk (lower body), Marcus Johansson (upper body) and defencemen Kevan Miller (upper body), Matt Grzelcyk (arm) and Torey Krug, who went down with an upper-body injury Tuesday against Columbus.
Krug is the squad’s leading scorer on the blue line and drives the NHL’s third-ranked power-play unit (26.2 per cent).
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).