Jets’ Mark Scheifele thriving under bright lights of Stanley Cup Playoffs

Kevin Fiala scored in the second overtime to lift the Nashville Predators over the Winnipeg Jets 5-4 in Game 2.

“Mark Scheifele has to become one of the best players in the world. Because that’s what I expect of myself.” — Mark Scheifele, talking about Mark Scheifele

NASHVILLE – The most dangerous shooter in these Stanley Cup Playoffs is not Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby or Patrik Laine or one of the many young wingers named Jake who seem to blossom in spring.

It’s Mark Scheifele, whose stick is so hot right now, you wouldn’t blame him if he swapped out his hockey gloves for oven mitts.

The Winnipeg Jets’ top centreman sniped another two goals on two shots in Sunday’s 5-4 double-overtime loss to the Nashville Predators, giving him a league-leading eight in these playoffs and a ridiculous seven in his past four games, all multi-point efforts.

Scheifele’s post-season shooting percentage has gusted to 44.4%. He’s not so much firing pucks as his discharging flame emojis off his blade.

His second on the night, a short-side one-timer off a beautiful cross-ice feed through traffic from linemate Blake Wheeler, arrived with a mere 65 seconds remaining in regulation and after a sequence that saw Scheifele ring a post from one of his patented quick-release attempts in the slot.

“He’s a huge piece for our team, big piece of the puzzle. He’s been that player for us all season. His game continually climbs during the playoffs,” says grinder Matt Hendricks. “We have to keep pushing to follow their lead.”

The 25-year-old Scheifele, making smart passes and vigorous back-checks all night, was hell-bent on pushing what was arguably the most entertaining game of the year to a fourth period, then a fifth. Thrilling hockey encores that spurred 17,000-plus to get out of their seats and give standing ovations and wave their free yellow lightsabers for the duration of the commercial breaks.

Nine goals, 91 shots, 188 attempts, 60 decent scoring chances (by winning coach Peter Laviolette’s estimation), and a post that may ring in Laine’s nightmares.

“If you didn’t care, if you weren’t from Nashville or Winnipeg, you had to like that,” says Laviolette. “I was just talking to David Poile and a couple of coaches, there was a point in the second period where it was a track meet. It was just up and down as fast as two teams could do.”

This, Paul Maurice suggested, is the kind of action we should expect of a series between the NHL’s two best regular-season sides — and what we might we look back on as the de facto Stanley Cup Final two rounds too early.

“Playoff hockey is fun. It’s exciting,” says Scheifele, who never did score in the Jets’ first trip to the dance. “We were able to generate a little more. We played a little more of our style of hockey.

“It’s a sucky way to lose, but we played a better game tonight than we did on Friday. That’s a positive. We can be upset for 10 minutes and then, after that, we’ve got to get our rest and get ready for Tuesday.”

Scheifele’s excellence isn’t exactly a secret. He racked up 32 goals and 82 points last season and has at least 20 in each of the past three. But with only eight teams left racing on your television — and just one Canada, if you hadn’t heard — this is his swing at the spotlight.

“Mark Scheifele has to become one of the best players in the world,” he told me during a lengthy sit-down last spring. “Because that’s what I expect of myself.”

How one becomes one of the world’s best is by taking all of his study and practice and executing now, under lights and through the screaming noise.

Scheifele eats, sleeps, watches, talks, obsesses hockey 24/7. He makes a point of being the last Jet off the ice at warmups and, along with Wheeler, has set a tone for the entire room with his dedication and preparation. Who knows how a couple more reps could pay off?

“All of those high-end guys, whether they will articulate it with you, they see things on the ice differently. They’re really valuable for coaches to talk to them about what they’re seeing,” Maurice explains.

“His first year we had him do a pre-scout of the other team before the game. Mark could give you a pre-scout of every team in the NHL, what players’ tendencies were.”

When we interviewed Scheifele last spring, Round 1 of playoffs had just gotten under way, and he confidently and correctly predicted the Pittsburgh Penguins would win the Cup. He saw it.

Maurice thinks back to 2012, when he was serving as an NHL analyst between coaching gigs and had to critique a young Scheifele finding his way in a man’s league.

“He got sent back to junior for his last year of junior, and the question on the panel that night was, ‘Is Mark Scheifele a bust?’ Because he didn’t come into the league at 18 and score 30, he got forgotten about a little bit. And then he came to the team in his first two or three years and we were truly rebuilding and young, so he wasn’t noticed.

“They were good numbers, but it wasn’t something they were talking about Hart Trophy. So, he just wasn’t forefront in everybody’s mind. But he’s just continued on that same pace to get better, and he’s emerging now as a player that people have to notice.”

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Beyond the Jets staff, Scheifele has employed fitness and nutrition guru Gary Roberts in the summer. He regularly reviews video with his personal skills coach Adam Oates. If there is a way he can turn his game into Crosby’s, he’ll find it.

That’s the bar he’s striving for. Over the past couple weeks, Scheifele says he’s made a point to push himself to the “dirty areas” and risk bumps in order for a higher-percentage shot.

“He’s committed to his profession, so you’re not surprised, then, when he has success,” Maurice says. “He’s a lot faster than you think. He’s a very efficient skater. But he can do things at a high rate of speed. It may not look like he’s moving as quickly as he is, but he’s a real powerful skater.”

We’re only seven games into the Jets’ second season and already Scheifele has impressed with his quickness, his turns, his checking, his shot, his passing, and his specialty-teams work.

“Where he is on the power play right now, [Laine] gets a ton of respect. We’re pretty lucky. I think we got the best, at least one of the best two one-timers in Laine and [Scheifele]. I haven’t seen anyone be better than that. It’s a great luxury to have,” Wheeler says.

“When he runs hot, he can put it in the net with the best of ’em.”


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