Amid snake-bitten season, Scheifele finding ways to grow in different role

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) and Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse (A) (25) battle for the puck during third period NHL preseason action in Edmonton on Saturday, October 2, 2021.(Jason Franson/CP)

WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele has been looking skyward a bit more often than usual these days.

That’s the byproduct of going six games without finding the back of the net in a season that has featured an abundance of glorious scoring chances.

Very little has seemed usual for Scheifele so far during a campaign that has already included several interruptions — one of which was planned and another that was quite the opposite.

The planned interruption was sitting out the season opener against the Anaheim Ducks as he served the final game of his suspension for the hit that left Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans with a concussion late in Game 1 of the second-round North Division playoff matchup.

After chipping in two assists in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild in his second game of the season, Scheifele found out he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Though he was fortunate to be asymptomatic, he still missed five games.

Then on Saturday night, late in the third period of the game against the New York Islanders, Scheifele tried to sidestep a check along the boards from defenceman Adam Pelech and was left with an undisclosed lower-body injury that appeared to be a charley horse.

You would forgive Scheifele if there was a sense of deja vu going through his mind, but that’s simply not the way he processes information.

“Obviously, you never want to have to leave a game and not be able to come back. It’s a pretty crappy feeling,” said Scheifele. “Luckily it wasn’t anything more. It has been a weird start to the year, but that’s life. I’ve been hurt in this league before, I’ve gone through so many experiences and that’s what makes you a better all-around person. You learn from that stuff, you take those tough things that happen in your life and you learn from them and you become a better person from that.

“You’re going to take bumps, you’re going to get bumps and bruises and we’re all tough guys and we can all battle through it. That’s the price you pay for playing a physical sport.”

After skipping Monday’s practice, Scheifele was back on the ice Tuesday morning and suited up against the St. Louis Blues in a game the Jets lost 3-2 in a shootout, leaving them with a record of 6-3-3.

Although he was kept off the scoresheet, Scheifele had another strong outing, finishing with three shots on goal, four shot attempts and several nifty setups as he led all forwards in ice time (22:21).

Of the 39 saves Blues goalie Jordan Binnington made, his best came with his right pad as he absolutely robbed Scheifele from point-blank range.

It was the type of outing that would have caught the attention of Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, who is also the chief architect of Team Canada’s entry at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

The same goes for two impressive hustle plays Scheifele made on the backcheck in Friday’s 5-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, preventing potential goals for Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome.

“You’ve got to play both ends of the ice. You play against good players and you’ve got to be aware at all times,” said Scheifele. “That’s just the game of hockey. You’ve got to backcheck, you’ve got to forecheck, you’ve got to block shots, you’ve got to take hits and that’s what we’re trying to build on this team.

“Every guy does every little thing and then, the goals and the assists, they come from doing those things. That’s what we want the Winnipeg Jets to be, that team that does it all and every team can do it all. That’s what I try to do every night.”

Scheifele has been limited to one assist in four games since returning from COVID-19, but he’s also taken on a slightly different role, as the man in the middle between Adam Lowry and longtime linemate Blake Wheeler.

The trio has been used in a checking-line role against the opposition’s best and Jets head coach Paul Maurice isn’t concerned about the limited offensive production right now.

“For those guys now, they’ll have to produce points at some point because that’s the pressure they’re under. But that can’t be the first thing,” said Maurice. “I look at that line and what do they do for us, and what does it do for the rest of our team?”

If Maurice wanted to try to kick-start that element of Scheifele’s game, he would reunite him with Kyle Connor.

But given how well Connor is meshing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Evgeny Svechnikov, Maurice doesn’t want to disrupt things, trusting Scheifele will eventually shoot his way out of this mini-drought.

Wheeler isn't worried either.

“For the better part of this homestand right there, we’re a little bit snake-bitten right now,” said Wheeler. “We obviously know that producing is a part of our job, but with the amount of chances and quality chances that we’re generating on a nightly basis right now, it’s something we can build off of and start to find the back of the net a little bit more.”

Wheeler, who is the franchise leader in points, hit another milestone on Tuesday as he chipped in his 700th point for the organization on Connor’s team-leading ninth goal of the season.

The hometown crowd responded with a boisterous ovation when a congratulatory message was posted on the scoreboard during a stoppage in play and the Jets captain rose to his feet on the bench and waved in appreciation.

The significance of the moment was not lost on Wheeler.

“I love these people here. They’ve treated me like gold for 11 years,” said Wheeler, who is up to 810 points in 988 games during his 14 NHL seasons. “I try to give everything I have every time we play in front of this building in front of those people so it means a lot to be appreciated.”

Maurice took some time during his post-game press conference to discuss the impact Wheeler has on his teammates.

“For a big chunk of those he’s just been, we use that word ‘driver,' but he’s been the tone-setter for our team in all areas of our game,” said Maurice. “It’s not just the play, it’s in the practice habits and the training and the pushing. What you don’t see about Blake, nor could you, but we went through this transition where we brought a lot of young kids in. So he’s a great role model for just work ethic. But the amount of times where one of those kids was struggling and he would be the guy that would just pull him aside.

“It’s impressive because Blake is a wired kind of guy. He is lathered in a game. He has an ability to kind of slide down beside a guy and put his arm around him. I’ve heard him say ‘I did the exact same thing when I was in my first year, I did the exact same thing.' So he’s got a grace about him as a leader. I don’t think that that’s known, because if you put a camera on him 10 minutes after the game, usually he’s still grinding. But he does have a grace about him as a leader to be able to reach out. He has that awareness of other people in his room.”

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