WINNIPEG – You can score 69 goals over your first three NHL seasons and sign a $42-million contract before your 22nd birthday. You can reach the conference final in your first ever trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. You can do all that and still find yourself searching for answers.
This can be a humbling game, wouldn’t you say, Nikolaj Ehlers?
“I haven’t exactly played the way I wanted,” Ehlers said Sunday.
The dynamic Winnipeg Jets winger appears to be learning a lesson that has been taught many times before. Auston Matthews and William Nylander were subjected to it earlier in these playoffs. Travis Konecny went quiet in Philadelphia’s first-round loss.
The NHL looks like an entirely different league once the post-season begins. The physicality picks up and the space to make offensive plays disappears – often neutralizing the talent of young, skilled players like Ehlers in the process.
“Everything is so much harder here,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Physical strength does become more of an issue. Playoff hockey’s different. It doesn’t mean that those players aren’t going to score and be great playoff players, but they’re going to go through a learning curve.
“They’re going to figure it out.”
There’s reason to believe Ehlers is on the cusp of a breakthrough. His greatest weapon is a strong skating stride and here in the Western Conference final the Jets find themselves in a track meet with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Ehlers showed some dangerous flashes in Saturday’s Game 1 victory, finding a little more room than the Nashville Predators afforded him during the second round. The Golden Knights didn’t pressure the Jets breakout as aggressively as the Preds, allowing Ehlers to go darting up the ice and back off defenders who respect his ability to skate past them.
He felt those rushes were missing throughout much of the Nashville series, but made an impact in Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena and generated five shot attempts in the opener against Vegas. Call them baby strides in the right direction.
“Everybody goes through a phase where it isn’t going so well and last series I felt that was me a little bit,” said Ehlers. “But it’s a team sport, and when it’s not going well for me I’ve got to find a way to play the simple game and help this team win in other ways.”
It must be somewhat scary to be game planning for the Jets and see a zero in the goal column beside Ehlers’s name. That can’t last. They’ve managed to go on this run with only two goals from Kyle Connor and four from sniper Patrik Laine.
Depth is not a buzzword here.
After acquiring Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, Maurice dropped the veteran centre between Ehlers and Laine. That trio has done an excellent job of tilting the ice this post-season even if they aren’t scoring at regular-season rates – controlling 57.5 per cent of even-strength shot attempts and generating 69.2 per cent of the high-danger chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.
They’re spending an awful lot of time in the offensive zone.
“I’ve got no complaints,” said Maurice. “Nikky Ehlers hasn’t scored a goal, but that line’s been pretty darn good and we just won our first two rounds so I don’t care if Nikky scores. I want him to play the best game that he can. Whether he puts the puck in the net or not, it doesn’t matter.
“The line’s got to outplay the other line. The team’s got to outplay the other team. That’s it.”
Ehlers grew up in a hockey-playing family and possesses maturity beyond his years. His father, Heinz, had a long professional career in Europe, as did his uncles Soren True and Mads True. He’s managed to keep a level head despite the 14-game goalless drought – just one shy of matching his longest stretch as an NHLer.
“It’s just a matter of getting back to just playing simple, playing fast, getting pucks to the net, playing good defensively,” said Ehlers. “It’s a simple game. You’ve just got to do the things you’re good at. And for me that’s skating.”
Like virtually all of his teammates, he’s learning about playoff hockey on the fly here. School is back in session Monday at Bell MTS Place for Game 2 against the Golden Knights.
Ehlers is placing faith in the belief that his big post-season moment awaits. That a window of opportunity is bound to arrive where he can show off the skill that made him a top-10 draft pick and allowed him to jump straight from junior into the NHL.
“It’s going to come and when it does it’s going to feel good,” said Ehlers. “But until then I’m doing the same thing. I’m working hard, I’m playing for this team and trying to help this team win.”