WINNIPEG – The sophomore jinx often comes early for National Hockey League rookies on good teams.
That difficult second season can be their first Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the hockey is tougher in every sense and scrutiny and pressure are amplified. Offensively, Kyle Connor hit “the wall” during the Winnipeg Jets’ run to the Western Conference Final last spring.
The speedy winger played well for stretches, especially in the Jets’ second-round series win against the Nashville Predators. But Connor scored just three times in 17 playoff games after a 31-goal regular season.
The 22-year-old has matched that goal total in the Jets’ first four games against the St. Louis Blues.
Connor set up Mark Scheifele’s tying goal and scored the overtime winner in Tuesday’s 2-1 win and his line, with Blake Wheeler, appeared to be taking over the first-round series ahead of Game 5 here Thursday.
“I thought I learned a lot from that playoff run last year, just the way you mentally prepare for each game,” Connor said after the morning skate on Thursday. “So, yeah, (this year) is a bit different.
“It’s such an emotional game every single game. Win one game and it feels like you’re winning the Cup, and vice-versa if you lose one. It’s about kind of managing those emotions and expectations.”
How steep was the learning curve?
“It was definitely something I’d never come across before,” Connor said. “I’d played playoff hockey, but it’s a different animal when you get to the Stanley Cup playoffs. As a team, we had a lot of guys in that situation. It was a great experience.”
Jets winger Patrik Laine, who capped his second NHL season with his first playoff appearances last spring, scored only five goals in 17 games after amassing 44 during the regular season. And third-year forward Nikolaj Ehlers didn’t have any playoff goals after scoring 29 during the season.
Through four games against the Blues, Ehlers has nothing on the board, but Laine has scored in each of the first three games and was a beast in Game 4 with four hits.
The Jets swept two games in St. Louis to even the series after losing the first two games at home. The Jets are 1-6 in their last seven playoff games in Winnipeg.
“Game 4 was the best game he has played as a Winnipeg Jet,” Maurice said of Laine. “The body position, the battles, the physicality, protecting the puck. Whether there are nights (the puck) goes in or it doesn’t, that can’t be the only thing that you do. The game that he played was the most developed game he has played as a Winnipeg Jet.”
Connor outscored Laine this season, 34 goals to 30, which reveals a lot about both players. Connor got better, while Laine seemed to regress, finishing the regular season with one goal in 19 games and two points in 12. Connor scored 12 times in his final 23 games.
“This year, he scored an awful lot of goals and he had a really good year,” Maurice said of Connor. “But now, selling the idea of playoff hockey is completely different.”
“We’ve been building for this the whole year,” Connor said. “We went through a tough stretch towards the end of the year. You go through that adversity and you kind of feel you can face anything when you get to the playoffs. We’re playing our best hockey at this time of year. That’s what you want.”