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DETROIT — The poor monkey never stood a chance.
When he finally lit the lamp Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nikolaj Ehlers made no secret of his relief when he reached back and ripped off the imaginary primate that he’s been carrying on his back over a 26-game scoreless stretch dating back to last season. He then mimed tossing the unwelcome guest into the crowd at Bell MTS Place, which seemed to recognize the enormity of the moment by giving a louder-than-usual ovation.
Although he’d recorded 11 assists during that span, it was a heck of a drought for the flashy Winnipeg Jets winger coming off a 29-goal campaign. We’re guessing April 3 in Montreal, the last time he scored in a regular-season game, felt like a lifetime ago.
“When you don’t score, it sucks,” Ehlers said bluntly following Wednesday’s game, which the Jets lost 4-2.
So what could that mean going forward as the Jets kick off a road trip tonight in Detroit against the lowly Red Wings, who sit last in the NHL with a 1-6-2 record and have the league’s worst goals-against average?
They’ll follow that up Saturday night with a rematch against the Maple Leafs in Toronto before flying to Finland for a pair of games next week against the Florida Panthers.
Nothing but good things, his coach and teammates say.
“I think you’re going to start to see the Nikolaj Ehlers that we’ve come to expect,” said centre Adam Lowry, who has four goals.
“It was awesome. I think early on you saw him create some chances. Right before his goal, he’s got a golden opportunity and it just misses. You’re just hoping that one’s going to come for him. It seems like a huge weight was lifted off him.”
Indeed, Ehlers seemed like a different player as soon as he took a nice behind-the-net feed from defenceman Jacob Trouba and beat Frederik Andersen from the slot in the third period. He was buzzing the rest of the period as the Jets pushed for the equalizer. Ehlers finished the night with a game-high eight shots on goal and two more misses in 17:53 of action.
“That was probably his best period, certainly for the year,” Lowry said. “When he’s back to moving his feet, that’s what makes him so effective. He’s so hard to defend when he’s attacking the rush and buzzing in the zone. To see him get one, I think… that’s going to give him some confidence.”
Ehlers had been noticeable earlier in the game as well, particularly on a first-period shift where he had a few good chances but came up empty. With his team down 3-0 and looking for a spark, Ehlers was moved up to the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler in the third period.
Patrik Laine moved down to play with Bryan Little and Kyle Connor, who had previously been moved off that top trio.
It will be interesting to see how Jets head coach Paul Maurice sets his forward lines when they take on the Red Wings. The Jets travelled Thursday and didn’t have a media availability.
“He was good from the start. He was close to it, he had three good whacks in the first,” Maurice said of Ehlers following the game. “You can show video and pump his tires and do whatever you want, but goal scorers have to put the puck in the net to get that good feeling, so we hope that it’s a start for him.”
Ehlers said he tried to “skate his ass off” Wednesday, and he’ll need to continue doing that.
The 22-year-old Dane is a huge part of the Jets’ offence, and at US$6 million a year there’s a lot of pressure on him to produce.
“Like I said, not scoring sucks. Getting this one, even though we lost, it definitely gives me some confidence. Scoring always does. Now I just gotta keep skating, keep playing the way I did,” he said.
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.