Five-point night gives Wheeler, Jets reason to smile

Blake Wheeler had five points as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Nashville Predators 5-2.

WINNIPEG -- Blake Wheeler doesn’t make a habit of basking in the afterglow of a top-notch individual performance.

The captain of the Winnipeg Jets has piled up enough points during his career and he’s said countless times that the only thing that really revs his engine is the pursuit of team success.

That team success this season has been tough to come by and the production has come in fits and starts, so you can understand why Wheeler was a bit more demonstrative than usual when he supplied what proved to be the game-winning goal in a critical 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena.

The play was a thing of beauty, with Mark Scheifele finding Wheeler on the doorstep with a perfect slap pass that the veteran right-winger redirected past Juuse Saros.

“It's been tough for me around the net this year so to have that one hit the net felt good,” said Wheeler, who let out a guttural roar as part of his celebration. “It was just a great play by pretty much everyone on the power play there. Everyone had a piece of that.

“The break gave us a little bit of time to look in the mirror and everyone felt like each guy individually had more to give. It was a good time to have a little gut check and like I said, we’ve had a lot of guys step up to the plate here and boost our hockey team and make us a tough team to play against.”

This was a vintage performance from Wheeler, who ended up with two goals and five points to lead the offensive charge.

Wheeler doubled his goal total to four and raised his shooting percentage from 2.8 to 5.1 per cent, converting two of his team-high eight shots on goal.

After the Jets fell behind 2-0 in the third period, Wheeler used his speed to take the puck wide on Predators defenceman Dante Fabbro and as the play developed, Mark Scheifele completed a perfect give-and-go with Ville Heinola during a four-on-four situation to spark a stretch of five unanswered goals for the visitors.

Wheeler seemed to be in the middle of everything, helping the Jets secure three of a possible four points on this two-game road trip as they improved to 20-17-8 on the season and pulled within seven points of the Anaheim Ducks, while holding four games in hand, in the chase for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

Wheeler used his vision and passing ability to set up Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois for power-play goals, then capped the second five-point game of his career with an empty-net goal.

This was Wheeler’s ninth game back since suffering a knee injury against the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 10 and he’s clearly making progress when it comes to getting his skating legs back.

After a slow start by his standards which was clearly impacted by a bout with COVID-19 that kept him out of five games, Wheeler is back to feeling like himself.

The timing of the schedule postponements in late December and early January meant that Wheeler missed only nine games during his recovery, but his season was interrupted for a second time, leaving him to try and play catch-up after sitting out the longest stretch of his 14-season career.

Coming out of the NHL All-Star break, Wheeler was among those looking and sounding rejuvenated and he delivered a virtuoso performance against the Predators, one night after the Jets suffered a frustrating 4-3 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars.

“The time off probably allowed him to reset and it allowed him to come back refreshed,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “Since he's been back from his injury, he's played very solid for us. It's nice to see him get rewarded.

"That's why he's our leader, and he showed the resiliency that you need. These guys are proud and they're elite athletes and keep themselves in great shape. His minutes were big and he still had stuff left in the tank."

The power-play markers from Wheeler and Dubois came during a five-minute major to Predators defenceman Mark Borowiecki, who also received a game misconduct for elbowing Jets winger Evgeny Svechnikov at 9:36 of the third period, to snap a 2-2 deadlock.

There have been times this season when the Jets power play has not been able to convert similar opportunities, but this was not one of them as Winnipeg finished 3-for-8 with the man-advantage.

The Jets will face the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night to continue a stretch of five games against Central Division opponents coming out of the break.

They have collected five of a possible six points, which represents some headway in the chase to leapfrog five teams ahead of them in the playoff race.

For all of the talk about the Jets being top heavy at times this season, those top guns came to play on Saturday.

Scheifele has now scored in three consecutive games and produced six points in those outings (including three points on Saturday).

That’s the type of response Scheifele was looking for when he said last week that the first half of the season wasn’t what he wanted and didn’t meet the level he prides himself on.

Connor is up to 26 goals (and hit another milestone by recording his 300th NHL point), Dubois became the second player on the Jets roster to reach 20 goals (including a team-high 10 on the power play) and defenceman Josh Morrissey chipped in a pair of assists.

The offensive production was obviously important for a club that surprisingly finds itself in the bottom third of the NHL in goals scored per game, but the Jets' ability to tighten up defensively after allowing two early goals was essential to sparking this rally.

There were several other important things that transpired, like Adam Lowry coming to the defence of Heinola after he was hit from behind by Predators forward Tanner Jeannot and Brenden Dillon continuing to provide a physical presence on the back end.

The Jets have been standing up for one another a lot of late and that willingness to engage physically and make an emotional investment is precisely what Dave Lowry was getting at when he encouraged his group to commit to being tougher to play against.

“It's easy at the end of the game to look at the stat sheet and seeing who scored and who had assists,” said Dubois, who reached the 20-goal plateau for the third time in five seasons. “But I think it takes a team to win and it takes a team to win, ultimately, the Stanley Cup. I thought everybody played well. There's a lot of things that go on in the game that don't appear on the stat sheet at the end and aren't that easy to see but that help a lot. (Wheeler) had a five-point night, I don't think I've ever had that in my career. So, of course, guys had offensive games, but even guys that didn’t have points played really well.”

Speaking of playing well, Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was called upon to be between the pipes on consecutive nights and is up to 38 starts in 45 games this season.

Despite allowing two goals in the first six minutes and change (both of which changed direction off his teammates), Hellebuyck stood tall, finishing with 34 saves -- many of which came in the first period as the Jets struggled to find their legs.

This was exactly the way Hellebuyck needed to play for the Jets to keep things interesting during the stretch run.

While Dave Lowry conceded there were conversations about going with backup Eric Comrie in the back end of games on consecutive days, the choice to go with Hellebuyck was made after considering his workload in Dallas on Friday and discussing the matter with him.

This was the correct decision and not just because the outcome worked out for the Jets.

“We did have conversations. (Hellebuyck) felt that he wanted to get back in the net,” said Lowry. “The big thing was when we got down, he settled the game down. He stayed focused, he stayed dialed in, and he did what we expected him to do and gave us a chance to win.”

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