Any time a star player misses significant time due to injury, his return to the lineup typically brings about much hype, a renewed sense of optimism and overly-inflated postseason hopes amongst the team and fanbase – all three of which happened in Winnipeg Friday night.
To understand the situation at hand easier, rewind the clocks 19 games to January 18. The Winnipeg Jets were in Washington as a part of a modified eight-game road trip, as COVID’s Omicron variant had caused various cancellations of home dates over the course of the month.
Travelling to D.C. for their lone road matchup against inter-conference opponent Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals, it was another Russian player that generated all the headlines amongst the Jets and their supporters that night.
With just a few minutes left in the third period of a tight game, defenceman Dmitry Orlov blatantly kneed forward Nikolaj Ehlers in the Capitals’ defensive zone, a play which resulted in no immediate penalty to Orlov. Ehlers left the game and did not return. Orlov and Co. went on to win the game in overtime, putting the wheels in motion for a six-game Jets losing streak, beginning that afternoon in Washington.
“I actually thought that I was going to be fine and keep playing,” Ehlers said of the injury at his first media availability since the injury. “But when I stood up the second time on the bench, it did not feel good. So, I kind of realized at that point that I wasn’t going to be playing for a little while. But you never know until you get the actual result and, well, it is what it is.”
Following a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, Orlov was suspended three games for his play, none of which came against the Jets.
No surprise, Ehlers was not impressed with the way things were handled both on and off ice.
Speaking for the first time publicly since he was helped down the tunnel at Capital One Arena, the Jets’ speedster did acknowledge an apologetic text message from Orlov, but failed to see how that helped the matter.
“I mean, he went in there full-on knowing he was going to go for my knee,” Ehlers added. “So, does it help a lot? No. I was out for six weeks, and he was out for three days. So, yeah.”
And during those six weeks, well, the Jets certainly showed they missed their flashy winger. The six-game losing streak paired with a number of other injuries and COVID-related absences, as well as some spotty goaltending and defensive play led many to believe that Winnipeg would not be making a run at the playoffs this spring, and instead serve as sellers at this year’s trade deadline.
Winnipeg managed just a 7-9-3 record through Ehlers’ absence, but his return to the lineup on Friday certainly proved the worth of its young Dane.
Ep 100: Divisional Round Preview: Who Is Headed To Championship Sunday?
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Taking the puck up-ice himself on a crafty power play rush, Ehlers found Andrew Copp, who appeared to score on Dallas netminder Braden Holtby, but video review determined the puck had only hit the crossbar and never fully crossed the goal line.
Opting to leave his second unit on the ice, Jets’ head coach Dave Lowry saw Ehlers and Co. actually put one past Holtby just 26 seconds later. Ehlers faked the shot before dishing to Copp, who in-turn put the puck back across ice to power play linemate Paul Stastny. He buried it short side, bringing fans back up to their feet on a goal that wouldn’t be over-turned.
“He gave us exactly what we expected: speed,” coach Lowry said post-game. “He’s a dynamic player who is going to create offence. You just look at his shot totals tonight, he was on and around the puck.”
Ehlers’ linemate and coach Dave’s son, Adam, agreed, saying it was Ehlers’ tenacity on the puck and speed through the neutral zone that really gave his line the opportunity for extended play in the Stars’ end of the ice.
“It’s huge,” Adam Lowry said of Ehlers’ return to the lineup. “It’s just a totally different element that teams have to defend. There’s few guys in the league that can skate like him, that can transport the puck. He pushes D-men off, he’s kinda able to be a one-man breakout at times. He generates a lot of chances, a lot of buzz in the building when the puck’s on his stick. I think he had some great chances tonight. He’s only going to get better as he shakes off the rust.”
Sadly, the skilled forward did not get the same kind of ice-time that his running mates on power play No. 1 received. After going 0/5 to start the game as the unit taking roughly 1:30 of each man advantage, Ehlers’ second unit proved deadly with its 40 seconds of work in the second period.
Three unsuccessful power plays for the #NHLJets in the early going.
After a 50/50 timeshare between the first and second units on the first man advantage, the second unit only saw about 25 seconds of ice time each of the next two power plays.
I'd like to see more of Ehlers.
— Carter Brooks (@CBrooksie84) March 5, 2022
“That’s the way that we had it set up, that those guys are going to start and when you have the puck in the zone, it’s hard to change,” Ehlers’ coach said of his power play ice-time allocation. “I would be concerned if we were coming up and back the ice and they were clearing the puck and we weren’t getting opportunities.”
The veteran Stastny also weighed in on his group’s usage, hinting at his slight displeasure in time allocation, but also productivity over fewer minutes.
“We’re ready whenever our name’s called or the other unit is out there,” he said. “Sometimes if we start first, the other unit’s pissed off and they’re a little hungrier. The few times we were out there I thought we had a couple good looks. Not just on the goal, but earlier in the first period… It’s those second, third chances that we took advantage of and that’s how we scored.”
Despite seeing just 25-30 seconds of each power play through their team’s first five man advantages, Ehlers, Stastny, Copp, Lowry and Neal Pionk did rack up an average of 2:45 of time spent on the man advantage through game’s end. But it was Blake Wheeler (7:04), Mark Scheifele (7:14), Kyle Connor (7:13), Pierre-Luc Dubois (6:20) and Josh Morrissey (7:03) that were handed the reins more often than not.
Either way, when presented with six power play opportunities, scoring one goal is nowhere near enough production. And with the offence-heavy New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning rolling into town over the next three days, the Jets will need to sort out their most productive offensive usage going forward.
“If we’re going to lose, I’d rather lose like this rather than where two weeks ago where we are getting outshot 2:1 and we find a way to get a point,” Stastny added. “We had our chances. I think having Ehlers back in the lineup makes us a whole different team; we can run four lines, as Ehlers is just so good at generating offence, creating power plays and gaining momentum. It is going to take him four or five games to really get comfortable but he almost didn’t skip a beat out there.”
Currently sitting at 24-21-10 and six points behind Nashville for the final Western Conference wild card spot, the Jets will need to look much deeper into power play production and ice-time allocation going forward if wanting to really make the push for the postseason that both the team and fans have come to expect.
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