There are games in which Blake Wheeler looks like an unstoppable force for the Winnipeg Jets. Thursday night in Carolina was one of those nights, as Wheeler’s two goals helped push the Jets past the Carolina Hurricanes by a score of 3-1.
Wheeler, who mans the wing alongside Mark Scheifele and Evander Kane, has had a few of those games already this season. Matter of fact, look at the game sheets from any Jets game this night, and the 26-year-old’s name is likely strewn across it.
What made Wheeler a force on Thursday night was his continued use of his size. Maybe one of the most underrated power forwards in the entire NHL, Wheeler’s speed is almost unheard of for a player with the frame he has. When he uses it to drive to the outside or lean on defenders, he’s nearly unstoppable, and if used to get body position in front of opposing goaltenders, it’s a recipe for a couple of tallies.
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Against Carolina, the Minnesota native got body position several times on Carolina’s defenders, and twice it resulted in deflections that found the back of the goal. At risk of beating a dead horse, it’s outstanding how he combines his speed and size to create opportunities for the Jets. His seven goals and 12 points now lead the way for the Jets.
Even while starting a good portion of his shifts in the defensive zone tonight, Wheeler was able to take the puck up the ice and create opportunities, on the ice for seven more attempts on Carolina’s goal than he was against his own. He saw time on the power play and on the penalty kill, was steady on both, and, aside from a goaltender interference call he took while crashing the net, played a near perfect game.
In a game that was much closer than even the score can represent, the rest of the Jets played a steady team game. Zone exits, aside from a sloppy start to the second period, were well executed.
Aside from a strange bounce that led to Elias Lindholm’s goal, Michael Hutchinson was perfect in relief of the Carolina Hurricanes. In fact, if it weren’t for that strange bounce, it may have been Hutchinson’s second straight shutout. He was steady, well positioned, and his rebound control was exceptional. Carolina was given few second-chance opportunities and any that came close were quickly cleared away.
It’s defensive responsibility like that – and like the play Zach Bogosian made in the third period to deny a Hurricanes attempt at a wide open net – that are proving to be the difference for the Jets so far this season. Now almost at the quarter pole, it might be time to think that Paul Maurice has truly improved the team’s approach to defense. The results are, almost undeniably, there.
A sore spot, however, continues to be the play with the extra man. The Jets 27th ranked power play fell short on both attempts on Thursday, but it’s becoming evident that it’s not for lack of shot generation.
As it stands, the Jets are among the best in the league at putting pucks towards the net with the extra man. The issue, however, is a dismal 7.2 shooting percentage when up a man. While that should go up, there’s cause for concern as the team as a whole is 30th in the league in regards to shooting percentage at even strength.
Shot generation is important and all we know about advanced statistics in today’s game should lead us to believe Winnipeg should begin to score more, and more often, but that just hasn’t been the case thus far. Over the course of a season, no team has shot worse than 5.77 percent in the last seven years. The Jets currently sit well below 5 percent at 4.72.
Winnipeg continues to roll and, though they haven’t been scoring, there are reasons to be hopeful. With Wheeler scoring and a team that seems committed to defensive play, there’s more than an outside chance at this point in the season that the Jets could be playing an 83rd game this season.
Jared Clinton is a freelance journalist who you can find in The Hockey News, Pie Magazine, and West Rouge Life Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @JPDClinton.