Nikolaj Ehlers has continued to separate himself from the playoff pack with the type of contributions one might have thought were impossible thanks to a long layoff from the rink.
Ehlers missed the last nine regular-season games after injuring his shoulder in 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs back on Apr. 24. He was late to the post-season party, too, having to sit out the first two games in what turned out to be a four-game series sweep over the Edmonton Oilers.
But the speedy Dane would return with a vengeance, scoring twice in a pivotal Game 3 victory, including the overtime winner 9:13 into the extra period. It would have been understandable had Ehlers eased his way back into the lineup, but the fact he looked as electric as he did in his breakout regular season made it all the more impressive.
Well, at least it was to those watching; not so much to the man himself, who downplayed his return by praising his team's systems for why he didn't miss a beat. Ehlers then expanded on his team-first response.
"We’re about 30 guys in that locker room and everyone knows what they need to do to help this team win games. For me, after being out for a little while and coming back, it was just a matter of going back out there and playing the game and sticking with the game that the Winnipeg Jets play," he said. "I was able to do that well and help this team win. Playoffs are so fun to play. You don’t want to lose any game in the playoffs, but if we go out there and we battle hard every single game, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to do something big here."
Ehlers, 25, finished the regular season with 21 goals and 25 assists for 46 points in 47 games. It was the closest he's come to being a point-per-game player in six seasons since breaking into the NHL in 2015. He's evolved into the Jets' true game-changer, behind only goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
What was also significant about Ehlers' post-season contributions is it's clear his lack of scoring touch in the playoffs is now a thing of the past. As you might recall, Ehlers went goalless in the Jets 2018 playoff run, a stretch that lasted 15 games before they were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final.
Ehlers finally broke the curse, scoring twice against Calgary in last year's playoffs, before the Flames eliminated the Jets in four games in the best-of-five preliminary round. He was asked if his strong regular season this year helped with his confidence in coming back and contributing to the scoresheet right away.
"You learn every single year and you learn every single playoffs about what it takes to win and what it takes to help the team win. I think that for myself, I just tried to learn from the past and tried to get better," Ehlers said.
"It wasn’t that hard getting back into it because I think the way that we play, we try to play a playoff-style hockey as quick as we can in the regular season. It’s never going to be the same in the regular season as it is in the playoffs, but you can get close to it. When you’ve got a game plan and a system that works and doesn’t change much during the playoffs, it’s easy to get back in. It was just a matter of getting myself going. Getting my body and my legs going for this series. I felt good out there and it was exciting."
The Pionk pass: Talking to reporters for the first time after setting up the series-clinching goal to Kyle Connor in triple overtime, Neal Pionk admitted he had no idea his stretch pass up the boards was destined for glory.
"No, I didn't see him," confessed Pionk. "As a defenceman, when there's a turnover just crossing the blue line, you know that there's a potential, especially with the long change like that, you know that there's a potential that our forwards will be hanging behind or potentially get a break away like he did. But, no, I can't admit to seeing him."
Tough call: A few times in the first series head coach Paul Maurice looked as though he might challenge an Oilers goal. In Game 3, there looked to be an offside on one of the Oilers goals, and another that might have confirmed goalie interference.
But looks can be deceiving and Maurice said if you're going to challenge, you better be sure of what you're seeing. Guess wrong, after all, and you're assessed a minor penalty.
"First of all, on the goalie interference, we had killed off one (power play) and hadn’t killed off the second, and if I was wrong, there was still 1:43 on the clock. So, there was no way I was calling one there," Maurice said.
"You have the No. 1 power play in the league, unless I was sure… you have to get it overturned. Once the call on the ice is made, there isn’t a grey area. We’re still within striking distance, if I put that team on the power play on a 5-on-3 for 1:43, they’re scoring again, and the game is over. The score matters. Knowing whether you’re right or wrong, you can make your arguments either way. It’s not even about that. It’s about what is the call on the ice and what are the chances of getting that call overturned. Boy, that’s a tough one. So, I look down on it, I didn’t think there was enough to make that call. When you look at the clock, there was no way I was making that call based on the clock. If I had thought there was goaltender interference and I had a legitimate (case), I would’ve made the call for sure. But I didn’t feel that, and the clock told me you’re going to regret it if you do."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.