CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Blake Wheeler doesn’t need a letter on his chest to know the importance of staying positive when things get a little dicey.
So as the veteran Winnipeg Jets right-winger stood outside the Florida Panthers Ice Den on Friday afternoon, assessing where things stand for his hockey club going into a pair of pivotal games against the aforementioned Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, you got the sense Wheeler knew exactly what was required for his team to pull itself out of the late-season tailspin.
The frequency of his back-and-forths with members of the media have been down dramatically since Wheeler had the captaincy removed prior to training camp, but his words still carry a lot of weight.
And with the Jets losing seven of their past eight games (1-5-2) leading into this three-game road trip, it was natural for reporters to wonder what the longest-serving member of the hockey club was feeling.
“Great teams are forged in fire, so it’s a great opportunity for us to stick together and deal with some adversity,” said Wheeler, who was asked to expand on how a team can do that during tough times. “Sticking together. Not pointing fingers, just taking responsibility for what’s transpired the last little bit. The reality of the situation is there was a stretch where we weren’t playing well at all and we deserved our fate. The last handful of games, we’ve been quite a bit better and you can see signs of the team that we had in the first half of the season.”
Wheeler’s words check out.
The Jets have been playing better lately, but they’ve had almost nothing to show for it, with just four of the 16 available points collected during this stretch.
That leaves them in a bit of a desperate situation going into the final 17 games of the regular season.
Rather than heap more pressure on the situation, Wheeler took the alternate approach, preferring to focus on what could be on the horizon, instead of lamenting points lost.
“It’s a big stretch for us,” said Wheeler, in what could be viewed as a massive understatement.
Jets head coach Rick Bowness said on Friday that centre Pierre-Luc Dubois won’t be available for either of the games this weekend, though he expressed hope that he might return for Tuesday’s road trip finale against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.
Dubois joins forward Cole Perfetti in the infirmary at a time when even-strength goals have been tough to come by.
“We probably played our best hockey, ironically, when we weren’t fully healthy in the early part of the season,” said Wheeler. “It’s nothing new for our team. We’ve been battling through it all year and it’s obviously difficult when you’re losing the calibre of players that we’re missing right now. But it’s just a matter of guys are getting opportunities now.”
One of those guys getting an expanded opportunity is Vladislav Namestnikov, promoted to the second-line centre job with Nikolaj Ehlers and Wheeler.
“He’s a really smart player. He keeps the game simple, he’s easy to read off of. You kind of know where he’s going to go, you know where the puck is going to go,” said Wheeler. “I’ve enjoyed it. He’s fit in really well.”
Because Bowness has coached him in two previous stops, Namestnikov had a head start when it came to earning the trust of the bench boss.
“Very comfortable with him in any situation out there,” said Bowness. “Pulled goalie, either way, right wing, left wing, penalty kill, like I told you before, he has a very high Hockey IQ, and you can put those guys in any position.”
Centre is Namestnikov’s natural position and it’s a spot he played a bunch during the first quarter of this season as the Tampa Bay Lightning were working through some injuries of their own, so the transition isn’t a difficult one.
“I was just coming in with an open mind. Wherever the coaches see me and need me, I’ll play there. I’ve played centre before, so I’m comfortable in that position,” said Namestnikov, who was chosen in the first round and entered the league as a player known for his offensive abilities. “Yeah, I’m the same player that I was back then. I think as I’ve played more games in the league I’ve become more responsible. Like on the defensive side. I can play up and down the lineup. So wherever coaches see me on different teams, that’s not up to me. I just have to go out there and play.”
As for the Jets, now it’s up to them to just go out and play.
The mood was upbeat and the pace was quick on Friday afternoon.
Will that translate into another sound effort as the Jets kick off this important stretch of games?
“The guys know that we’re playing a lot better the last couple of games. They know the importance of the weekend, clearly,” said Bowness. “We’re going to have to get a couple wins here. No one is happy that we lost three of those points when we played so well, clearly.
“But the most important thing is to feel good about how the team game was, and the team games was very good for both of those games.”
We’ll give the last word to Wheeler, who got a bit philosophical when asked about what would be required during the stretch run.
“It’s just a lot of opportunity ahead of you. It’s exciting to be in the conversation for the playoffs and potentially having a chance to go on a run,” said Wheeler. “When you’re going through a tough stretch, you’ve got to walk that fine line of squeezing too hard and pushing too hard and still bringing confidence to the table. When you’re playing your best hockey, you don’t feel like you’re forcing it or trying hard. You’re just kind of able to go out and play.
“It’s kind of a tight-rope act, but I think for the veteran guys on the team, it’s a matter of (exuding) a lot of confidence and enthusiasm in the dressing room.”