Jets' Wheeler wows with A-game
PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency
|Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler scores on St. Louis Blues' goaltender Jaroslav Halak during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg Feb. 25, 2012. (REUTERS/Fred Greenslade)
He’s turned in some dandy performances of late, but Blake Wheeler’s two-goal effort against St. Louis on Saturday may have been the Minnesota native’s finest hour(s) as a Winnipeg Jet.
His coach sure thought so.
“Blake Wheeler was the best player on the ice for both teams, by far,” Claude Noel said, after his team dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the Blues. “He dings one off the post, he scores two — pretty much the best game I’ve seen him play. That’s a heck of an A-game from him.”
It’s hard to believe Wheeler is the same player that went the first 18 games of the season without scoring.
Today, the 6-foot-5 speedster is consistently dangerous, and easily Winnipeg’s top point-getter, with 51 (13 goals, 38 assists), including 13 on a current six-game streak.
“When you see the growth of a young player like him, he’s coming into his own,” Noel said. “That’s the fun part.”
While opposing teams try to find ways to slow Wheeler down, his teammates simply sit back and enjoy the show.
“He’s just playing with such confidence,” goalie Chris Mason said. “He comes from Boston and he’s getting a chance to play in that role, and he’s just thriving. I’m really proud of him. He had a tough start to this year and he’s really come on.
“He’s put our offence on his shoulders and he’s getting his linemates going and just looks so good out there. It’s fun watching him.”
A year ago at this time, Wheeler, 25, was shipped from Boston to Atlanta, a move that didn’t thrill him originally.Then he realized how much bigger his role could be here.
“He’s taken advantage of it,” Noel said. “That door is open for everybody. When you’re going to play like that, you’re going to plow right through it.”
And you’ll become a fan favourite. Having 15,000 chant his name on Saturday was a new experience for Wheeler.
“Never (before),” he said. “That was cool.”
Wheeler came close to scoring the first hat trick by the reborn Jets, handcuffing Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak a couple of times. That didn’t stop fans from throwing hats on the ice when he managed a goal in the shootout, even though it doesn’t count in the stats.
For Wheeler, the feeling is mutual.
“I love it here. There’s no further explanation needed.”
I’LL TRADE YA: Mason wasn’t thrilled with facing just 16 shots. He would’ve preferred being at the other end.
“I would have gladly traded games with Halak, just because you like to get shots,” Mason said. “It’s tough. I don’t like those games at all.”
Halak faced 42 shots.
CHESS MATCH: Noel enjoyed the line-matching battle with his mentor, opposing head coach Ken Hitchcock, as he tried to get the GST line out against St. Louis’s top unit.
“I wanted to get Slater out against (David) Backes. He wanted to get Backes out against Little,” Noel said. “He was trying to control Little’s line ... because those guys were getting some good scoring chances. There was a lot of that going on. That was the fun part of it, coaching-wise.”