Speedy Nikolaj Ehlers has one game to make an impact for Jets

Brian Burke sits down with Tim and Sid to discuss how tough it can be to make a coaching change and the Jets not being able to finish off the Predators at home.

WINNIPEG — Hearing Nikolaj Ehlers describe one of his winding end-to-end, 200-foot turbo bursts is nearly as joyous as witnessing one live.

“I love getting the puck and gathering some speed and just skate it up. Using my speed is my biggest asset. It’s a good feeling. You have that puck and you’re skating fast … it’s pretty open,” Ehlers says. “You hear the crowd and it gives you some extra energy, extra motivation.”

When the fastest Dane on blades gets wheeling and weaving through the neutral zone, an audible gasp inhales the True North.

“A rush like that, it’s exciting hearing the crowd going, ‘Ooooh!’” Ehlers goes on. “And then it always ends up with, ‘Ahhhh.’” The sad trombone of hockey gods swatting him away.

“Hopefully,” Ehlers says, “one day it can end up with everybody standing up and celebrating.”

Thursday night in Nashville would be a fine time for the 22-year-old to trade what-ifs for results.

For 20 consecutive shots, 12 straight games, 35 continuous days and counting, Ehlers has been unable to score a goal — something he had no issue doing in the regular season, when he ripped a career-best 29 goals to go with 31 assists. And something, at least in part, he’ll be paid $42 million to do for the Winnipeg Jets for the next seven seasons.

“They’re hard games. Not one of those games has been easy,” says Ehlers, who has maintained a sunny exterior in the face of a stack of unflattering score sheets.

“I’m playing some really good hockey, but the puck doesn’t want to go in. I feel really good about everything but scoring. I’m getting the chances, [Patrik] Laine’s getting the chances, we’re winning games.

“I’m trying to get the puck and open up some holes. I’m trying to use my speed as much as I can. That’s what my game is about. I have to keep doing that.”

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Nashville’s elite defence, which chucks shopping carts into Ehlers’ neutral-zone tracks, and Pekka Rinne’s talents have done a nifty job of shutting him down, and the Predators did the same to 31-goal rookie Kyle Connor until he finally broke out in Game 5. The Preds’ Kyle Turris has the same number of playoff goals as Lady Antebellum.

It happens to the best of ’em at the worst times.

So, Paul Maurice tried bumping Ehlers up to Mark Scheifele’s top line for 100 minutes. Then, in Game 6’s loss, he told Ehlers he’d be demoting him to the bottom six in favour of the scrappier, more impactful and more seasoned Mathieu Perreault.

Maurice says young offensive studs like Ehlers, who averaged two points per playoff night as a junior with the Halifax Mooseheads, feel an onus to produce.

“And when it’s not there, you’re carrying a whole different set of pressures and you stop thinking anything but scoring. So, the rest of your game has a tendency to slide,” Maurice says.

“He’s got to get back to relaxing in terms of his expectations of every time he touches the puck something’s going to happen. In playoffs, that rarely happens. And then focusing that extra energy in other areas of the game.

“His first would be just his feet ­­— get to that blinding speed that he has. And if that’s on the forecheck, make it on the forecheck. If it’s without the puck, fine, run your routes faster and faster and faster. And the game will actually slow down for you and all those good things will come out.”

The feet on Ehlers remind Maurice of Sami Kapanen, father of the Maple Leafs’ Kasperi, whom Maurice coached in Carolina. Because of his snap quickness off pivots and arresting first four strides, defenders are forced to defend guys like that early, or risk getting burned.

“You’re not catching them if you get behind,” Maurice says. “Nicky’s maybe more selective with it at times. But I don’t think he’s the fastest guy on our team (see sidebar).”

During those eye-popping (but recently fruitless) rushes, Ehlers says he tries to read where all the defenders are positioned. If four or five guys are waiting for him at the blue line, he’ll chip and chase.

“My game is to use my speed as much as I can,” he says. “It’s about picking your time and place to do it.”

Paul Stastny, Ehlers’ sage centreman when Maurice isn’t compelled to pull strings, is in constant communication with the sophomore. The setup man has spent a lifetime watching shooters run hot and cold, so he’s well versed in shooting-percentage regression. He underlines team success, playing the right way, and the clean slate.

No one will remember Ehlers’ post-season sabbatical if he delivers in Game 7. There’s a wet sheet of ice and 60 minutes of race track waiting for him.

“What happened previous 10, 11 playoff games doesn’t matter. Whether it’s him, whether it’s a top guy, whether it’s a bottom guy, it’s a team game here,” Stastny says.

“It’s all about one game. It’s all about the next game.”

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