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The frustration that gripped Patrik Laine through the opening 12 games of the regular season was not an illusion. Paul Maurice will admit to that.
And it had a lot to do with the 20-year-old’s journey back to his Finnish homeland for the NHL’s Global Series, pitting the Winnipeg Jets against the Florida Panthers in a pair of games last week.
Laine, his country’s most celebrated hockey star, could have wilted under the pressure from the intense focus of fans in Helsinki and the unrelenting demands of the European media.
Of course, quite the opposite occurred. Laine scored four times in the two games, bringing his 14-game total to seven goals and nine points, and he pulled it off with the sort of dramatic flair Winnipeg fans have become accustomed to.
But in the weeks leading up to Helsinki, the enormity of the occasion appeared to weigh on the star forward; he was uncharacteristically hesitant, often fumbling the puck in key situations.
“We were aware of it,” Maurice said following a Wednesday morning practice at Bell MTS Iceplex. “His game wasn’t where we thought it would be prior to it. And he would admit to that. So the obvious (question) is, ‘What’s unusual? What’s different about your situation?’ Well, you’re heading to a pretty intense, pretty emotional time for a young man. He handled it, clearly, exceptionally well.
“But even leading into it, the two or three days, there were so many requests to talk to him. And he was so good at dealing with all the people, signing all the autographs — he really opened himself up. Didn’t close himself off because he didn’t like his game. He took every question. He handled it exceptionally well.”
If he’s ever nervous, Laine never seems to show it. Yet Helsinki seemed to provide a release when others might have disappeared on such a big stage.
“I don’t know what word to attach to that — maybe ‘in the moment’ would be correct,” said Maurice. “Because that’s been probably on his calendar since the summertime. And there’s pressure that goes with it. He’s a 20-year-old that has truly a nation looking at him and wants to perform well. So when the first one went in, all of a sudden he does relax a little bit. You want to work as hard as you possibly can, but guys like that do have to relax with the puck on their stick. And we saw more ease with it, for sure.”
For his sometimes-linemate Bryan Little, it was a welcome return to form.
“I think hopefully he brings that game back with him,” said Little. “He was fine over there. He looked really confident, he looked like he was turning it up a bit, so hopefully he brings it back here.”
Added defenceman Tyler Myers: “I think he really enjoyed it. Especially putting up four goals going back home, you know, turned into an even bigger god over there than he already is. It was good to see him have some success over there. I think all the guys in the room were pretty happy for him.”
Laine’s teammates didn’t see much of him off the ice during the trip. His itinerary was packed with commitments and he appeared to thrive in the situation, which is not really a surprise for someone with his savvy in the public eye.
“You know what, the thing I’ve noticed about Patty the last couple of years playing with him is he handles pressure really well, he doesn’t let it weigh on him too much, even when things are going well or aren’t going well,” said Myers. “He stays pretty even-keeled and sticks with it so it’s a good quality to have, especially in a young guy.”
Laine has also found a new home — albeit temporarily — on a line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev and his confidence is soaring.
“Shooters need confidence — so his practices look different now than they did prior to it,” said Maurice. “He’s moving more powerfully. He’s adapted himself to the two guys he’s playing with. I’m not sure I have that long-term, but it’s the right direction for his personal game. A little harder, more direct. He’s shooting the puck a little harder. He’s got more confidence carrying it up the ice.
“So we like what the boost is. You can do all the things to get a guy some confidence. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as a goal.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.