WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele wasn’t about to shy away from the spotlight going into the season — and he’s certainly not about to start now that the Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived.
When you have the courage to embrace comparisons to the best players in the NHL like the Winnipeg Jets centre did back in January, there is a tendency for some observers to focus solely on the blemishes that show up under the bright lights and the extreme focus of the microscope.
But guess what, neither does anybody else in the NHL.
It’s an unfair fight, metaphorically speaking.
Rather than take his puck and go home, Scheifele chooses to focus on trying to do what he can to close the talent gap.
“Those guys, they motivate you to be better. They motivate you to work on your game even more,” said Scheifele. “They motivate you to be at your best every single game, so when you put the magnification of Stanley Cup Playoffs on the line, it amplifies it even more. I’m definitely very excited for the opportunity and excited for the challenge, and I know those guys are, as well. It’s fun to play against the best.
“Both those guys prove day in and day out how they’re the best players in the world, and you have to be at your best every single shift against them or they’re going to make you pay.”
When the Jets and Oilers meet in Game 1 of the North Division series Wednesday night in Edmonton, you can be sure Scheifele and McDavid will spend ample time matched up against one another.
Because each of those players occupy a spot on the top line at centre on their respective teams, they’re going to be judged by how they do against one another.
“You want a player aspiring to that, to play against the best in the world,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “And to reach that, the concern is that they play different games and not (focusing on) trying to play the other man’s game. So where his strength can be for us is working with his linemates and being part of a group. Connor McDavid certainly does that, but his uniqueness makes him kind of a one-off in the way that he plays the game. You want that guy, you want Mark Scheifele wanting that challenge and then rising to that challenge. That’s how all players are measured.”
The head-to-head numbers during the regular season weren’t pretty, with McDavid’s line (both with Draisaitl and without) holding a distinct advantage.
Where McDavid managed 22 points over nine multipoint games against the Jets this season, Scheifele managed three goals and seven points (with three of those coming on the power play).
It’s important to remember McDavid enjoyed success against virtually all six teams he faced this season as he rolled toward a 105-point campaign.
Scheifele was ninth in NHL scoring with 63 points in 56 games, marking a fifth consecutive season he’s produced at a rate of more than a point per game.
He’s still got work to do when it comes to his two-way game, but there have been noticeable improvements on that front.
Scheifele also outscored Sidney Crosby, Aleksander Barkov, Sebastian Aho and Ryan O’Reilly, which is pretty heady company.
“(Scheifele) just comes to the rink every day and he’s looking for ways to get better. He’s always showing guys different things, whether it’s their game or the team game that he can improve,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “We see his work ethic. He’s out there 20-30 minutes before every practice. He’s always on the ice, always improving his game and he drags guys into it. He takes them along. He’s made so many improvements in other people’s games and how they take care of themselves off the ice. It’s not necessarily a certain style. It’s the work he does behind the scenes that kind of shows up on the ice for our team.”
Now it’s time to see if Scheifele — who has put a late-season benching behind him — can deliver once again when the chips are down.
During the 2018 playoffs, Scheifele was operating at close to an optimal level, delivering 14 goals and 20 points in 17 games as the Jets reached the Western Conference Final before getting eliminated in five games by the Vegas Golden Knights.
The following spring, Scheifele and the Jets were eliminated in six games in the first round matchup with the St. Louis Blues.
Last August, when Scheifele came back refreshed and primed for a dominant playoff performance, he was limited to only three shifts and just under three minutes of ice time as he was knocked out of the series on a hit by Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk.
Scheifele has stuffed that thought deep into the memory bank, though he realizes how precious opportunities like this one are.
“It’s felt like forever since that happened, so it’s not really on my mind. Just excited,” said Scheifele. “It’s Stanley Cup Playoff hockey. I know we’re all just chomping at the bit here just watching. You watch that Tampa Bay-Florida game (Sunday) night and if your juices didn’t get going, there’s something wrong with you.”
Scheifele is rarely lacking motivation and this is a personal challenge for him.
He’s trained with McDavid in the past and they were teammates on that memorable Team North America outfit at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
“Connor, first of all, proved how fantastic a player he is this year. He really stepped up his game and it was impressive to watch. I’m a big fan of his,” said Scheifele. “He’s a fantastic hockey player and he’s the best player in our game right now. I definitely have thought about it over the last few days, ever since we knew we were going to play against Edmonton, you can think about the times where I was out against Connor and he got the best of me or I made a play on him and you try to think about ways you can take advantage of him when he’s on the ice or what to do on the defensive side.
“All that stuff is all learning experiences. For the most part you just have to use those things during the season as a learning curve and these next few days, obviously work on things, work on your game, work hard and try to prepare yourself as much as possible for that first game.”
The Jets’ reunited top line of Scheifele between captain Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor was able to heat up late in the season and they’ll need to keep that going in order to try and gain an upper hand, especially with the status of Nikolaj Ehlers (suspected shoulder) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (undisclosed) up in the air for Game 1.
“You put the three of them together and they understand each other, you start to get that synergy that would make them greater than individuals,” said Maurice. “They’re pretty good right now at both ends of the rink and they’re starting to peak. That chemistry is there. It’s always kind of been there. But they’ve got it all moving in the right direction now.”