If there was any doubt that Blake Wheeler is the heart and soul of the Winnipeg Jets, then Thursday’s 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks officially put that debate to rest.
Wheeler, 27, finished the game with a goal and two assists in the win, including a cross-crease pass to Tobias Enstrom who deposited the puck in to an open net with 3:39 left in the third period to earn the Jets the win.
With three points on the night, Wheeler now has two goals and 10 assists in his last nine games.
“He’s been dominant this last month or so,” said Jets’ captain Andrew Ladd, who finished the game with a goal in his first game back since missing Monday’s loss to Dallas for the birth of his daughter.
“With his speed, and the confidence with the puck now; I know first-hand playing with him, he’s a guy that if you get open he’ll find a way to get you the puck.”
Leading by example
It was that kind of effort on full display Thursday, in one of the toughest buildings to play in, against one of the toughest teams in the league.
Dustin Byfuglien also benefited from Wheeler’s keen sense, connecting on a cross-ice feed for an easy one-timer goal in the second period.
“He just keeps getting stronger and more powerful,” praised head coach Paul Maurice. “Power play, penalty kill, five-on-five, finishing checks; he’s just fantastic for us. I’m really happy for him to, to get some recognition for the work he’s done.”
Wheeler's 25 goals are a career-high and his 62 points are just two shy of tying his most productive season on the stat sheet.
But it’s not just the points that make him valuable, but the way he handles himself and his commitment to his teammates.
That's the kind of mentality you learn from playing on the biggest hockey stages in the world. For Wheeler, it came as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.
Earlier this month, Wheeler shared the kind of impact the Games had on him and how it altered the way he approached the game.
For two weeks, said Wheeler, he was surrounded by teammates who understood not only what it meant to win but also the sacrifice necessary to win.
Wheeler noted the way they conducted themselves as professionals both on and off the ice. He marvelled at the kind of respect each player had for the game.
It’s something he now tries to instill in his own locker room, to a team who prior to Thursday’s game had won just two of their last 11. Losses to Carolina on Saturday and Dallas on Monday had all but eliminated any hope the Jets had of making the playoffs.
The easy thing to do would be to ignore the media and their questions about another underwhelming season. Some players have already chosen that path.
But not Wheeler.
Rarely does a practice or a game go by where Wheeler isn’t in front of a mic to defend his teammates and their play, or provide accountability when necessary.
“I still believe in this group regardless of where we are in the standings,” said Wheeler. "Individually, guys need to decide what they're going to bring to the table and if they want to be a part of this in the future.”
It’s a presence like this that leaves little doubt that Wheeler will be around for a while.
Jets forward Devin Setoguchi was a healthy scratch for the game. Maurice called the move a "coach's decision."
Setoguchi has struggled this year, scoring just 11 goals and 16 assists in 72 games.
Ondrej Pavelec took part in his second full practice Thursday since returning from a lower-body injury. He did not dress for the game, missing his sixth straight contest, but Maurice said if all goes well, he'll be back between the pipes for Saturday's game against the L.A. Kings.
Dustin Byfuglien celebrated his 29th birthday in style, scoring a power play marker in the second period to give him 20 on the year. It's just the second time in seven seasons Byfuglien has scored 20 goals.
Zach Bogosian missed his second straight game and third in the last four with an upper body injury. Chris Thorburn (ankle), Mark Scheifele (knee) and James Wright (ankle) were also sidelined with injuries.
Sharks captain Joe Thornton celebrated a career milestone, playing in his 1,200th NHL game. Thornton becomes just the 99th player to reach the 1,200-game mark. He has 342 goals and 847 assists for 1,189 career points.
First: Blake Wheeler, WPG
He was the best player on the ice for the Jets Thursday night and has been for quite some time now. Wheeler finished the game with a goal and added two assists, including a nice set up to Tobias Enstrom for the game-winning goal.
Second: Bryan Little, WPG
He’s known as Mr. Consistent for giving the Jets a chance to win each night with his strong play in the offensive zone. Little finished the game with two assists, bringing him just a point shy of his first-ever 60-point season.
Third: James Sheppard, SJ
The Sharks’ winger didn’t play much but when he did, he made it count, finishing with two assists in 10:16 of ice time.