Jets’ bal­ance comes due as Ve­gas ups the stakes

Lean­ing too much on Scheifele is wear­ing thin for Winnipeg, writes Paul Friesen.

Windsor Star - - SPORTS - Pfriesen@post­media.com twit­ter: @friesen­sun­media

Pag­ing Niko­laj Eh­lers, Bryan Lit­tle, Mathieu Per­reault, Adam Lowry and Pa­trik Laine. Please re­port to the check-in desk of the NHL’s Western Con­fer­ence fi­nal.

The Winnipeg Jets need you to bal­ance out this flight.

The Jets’ play­off run so far has been re­mark­able for a few things, not the least of which is the historic pro­duc­tion from Mark Scheifele (a play­off record 11 road goals), and the man usu­ally set­ting him up, Blake Wheeler. The trou­ble is, Scheifele is the only player who scored for the Jets in their 4-2 loss in Game

3 on Wed­nes­day and trail the se­ries 2-1 with Game 4 Fri­day in Las Ve­gas.

In three games against the Golden Knights, the Jets have just seven goals, three of them by Scheifele.

Over the en­tire play­offs, No. 55 has scored 14 of his team’s 50 goals, an oth­er­worldly 28 per cent.

There is only so long the Jets can lean on the man and his right wing, and that time is up. This team is known for its depth up front, and it has to start show­ing that on the score­sheet. The bal­ance is due.

Or else the Ve­gas Cin­derella story will be the talk of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal, while in Winnipeg they’ll be left to an­a­lyze how it all fell short.

That anal­y­sis is easy right now. The Jets are turn­ing the puck over far too much against a Golden Knights team that forces it, then feasts on it.

And they’re not get­ting pro­duc­tion from some im­por­tant play­ers. Eh­lers’ scor­ing trou­bles in the play­offs have been well-doc­u­mented. Af­ter post­ing 29 goals in the reg­u­lar sea­son, he has yet to man­age a sin­gle one in 13 play­off games.

The 22-year-old didn’t play in Game 3, due to an ail­ment of some sort, we were told.

The fact some won­dered if he was a healthy scratch says it all. Eh­lers isn’t get­ting the room to do his patented, end-to-end speed thing, so he needs to find other ways to be a threat. Prob­a­bly by get­ting his nose a lit­tle dirt­ier, the way most play­ers score in the play­offs.

He needs to find some way out of his funk, as­sum­ing he gets back in the lineup for Game 4. But the speedy Dane is far from alone.

Not long ago Lit­tle was the No. 1 cen­tre on this team, but af­ter scor­ing 16 times this sea­son, he has just one goal in 15 play­off games. His ice time isn’t quite what it used to be, his line­mates might not be, ei­ther, and Lit­tle has been solid, de­fen­sively. But he’s a smart vet­eran who needs to chip in. Per­reault falls in the same cat­e­gory: 17 goals dur­ing the sea­son, one in seven play­off games. It’s hard to find fault with Per­reault’s over­all game. He was buzzing on Wed­nes­day.

But he has just the one point in the play­offs.

Lowry’s case is in­ter­est­ing, in that you would have thought his game is built for this time of year. Big, phys­i­cal, and will­ing to take a beat­ing in front of the net, Lowry’s scor­ing drought goes back an as­ton­ish­ing four and a half months — his last goal came on Dec. 29. Since then he’s missed 28 games due to in­juries. But he’s also played 30 games — 15 reg­u­lar-sea­son and 15 post­sea­son — with­out scor­ing. Which bring us to Laine.

So far, this post-sea­son hasn’t done much to bur­nish the 20-year-old’s al­ready re­mark­able rep­u­ta­tion.

He’s looked slow at times, gives up the puck un­der pres­sure too of­ten and tries to go solo more than he should.

But he’s 20. He’s in his sec­ond sea­son in the NHL, and in North Amer­ica.

So you can live with all that be­cause of his scor­ing gift. The thing is, Laine’s magic has all but van­ished in the play­offs. Sure, he has four goals, in­clud­ing one in Game 1 against Ve­gas. But that’s in 15 games, well be­low the rate of his sparkling 44-goal reg­u­lar sea­son.

Laine has been mostly a pow­er­play threat, and even there teams have fig­ured out how to take him away.

It ap­pears the amped-up check­ing and in­ten­sity of the Stan­ley Cup chase has over­whelmed No. 29, on oc­ca­sion. For some­one his age — Eh­lers and Kyle Con­nor (three goals in 15 games) are in the same boat — go­ing through this for the first time can be a painful learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

So cut them all the slack you want and think they de­serve. By the end of their ca­reers, this will likely be a blip on their re­sumes.

But in the here and now, for this Jets team that ap­pears as le­git a Cup con­tender as any team left in the chase, the kids are crit­i­cal pieces. Pieces that aren’t fit­ting right now. Along with some vets who sim­ply aren’t pro­duc­ing.

If the Jets are go­ing to ex­tend this jour­ney all the way to the Cup fi­nal, that will have to change.

Fri­day might not be a fi­nal board­ing call for Flight 2018. But it’s get­ting close.

ELSA/GETTY IMAGES

Ve­gas Golden Knights blue-liner Deryk En­gel­land de­fends against Winnipeg Jets for­ward Niko­laj Eh­lers. Af­ter 13 play­off games, Eh­lers has yet to turn on the red light.

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