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Back from break, Jets continue to ‘fine-tune’ play with win over Blackhawks

WINNIPEG — This tic-tac-toe play was a thing of beauty.

A crisp cross-ice pass by Nikolaj Ehlers after another successful zone entry started the sequence of events.

A smart net drive by Neal Pionk, helping to draw a defender to him, opening up a passing lane just a little bit more for Blake Wheeler, who knew exactly where to find a streaking Mark Scheifele.

Scheifele stepped into the shot for what proved to be an important insurance marker — along with something that will be shown on plenty of highlight reels for what was his team-leading 32nd of the campaign — in a 4-1 victory for the Winnipeg Jets over the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

“Whenever I get the puck I am always looking for him,” said Wheeler, who added a pair of goals for a three-point night. “It’s no different. We’ve scored a lot of goals that way over the years and when I get that puck on the right side my first look is to see where he is and he was kind of coming right down the slot. You give him the puck there.”

You can count Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck among those who are impressed by the innate ability of Wheeler and Scheifele to find one another on the ice.

“It’s awesome. It’s just so fun to watch them play, especially when they’re feeling it and their confidence levels are high,” said Hellebuyck. “You just know there’s no beating them. And they do things like that. What I love most about their games is they’re not forcing that every second. They’re waiting for their moments and they’re jumping on them.”

Much has been said about Wheeler this season, from how he handled the removal of his captaincy going into the campaign to how he’s continued to play an important role in the Top-6.

Thanks to another multipoint showing, Wheeler is up to 14 goals and 40 points in 44 games — an impressive total, especially for someone with 1,090 regular season tilts on his resume.

Wheeler had plenty of jump in his legs and was clearly feeling refreshed after the lengthy break.

“I think so. For sure. We know how busy the schedule was leading up to the break,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “A lot of guys needed it. The older you get in the league, the more rest you can get, the better. He was skating really well and obviously, he played a great game for us.”

Wheeler supplied the ever-important game-winning goal, redirecting a Kyle Connor blast with his skate during a power play, then added an empty-netter to round out the scoring, inching him closer to hitting the 20-goal mark for what would be the ninth time in his career (he also had 19 in 48 games during the lockout-shortened season of 2013).

That’s an underrated and sometimes overlooked element of Wheeler’s game, though that has more to do with his exceptional passing ability than anything else.

The reunion of Scheifele and Wheeler has been a positive for the Jets and it sounds like Bowness wants to see more of them with Nikolaj Ehlers as he continues to search for his optimal line combinations.

“(Ehlers) gives them a lot of speed on that left side as well,” said Bowness. “Again, we’d like to keep those lines together for a while. I like the look of them.”

Bowness did shorten his bench a bit in the third, as Cole Perfetti didn’t play in the final 8:18.

A stickler for shift length, Bowness said he wasn’t concerned about Perfetti taking four shifts that lasted longer than a minute — including consecutive shifts of 1:13 in his final two turns on the ice.

“No,” said Bowness. “He just got caught out on the ice a couple of times.”

Perfetti was replaced on the line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Connor by Mason Appleton, who had a solid return in his first game action since breaking his wrist on Nov. 13.

Appleton took 17 shifts for 15:32 of ice time, including 2:39 on the penalty kill, finishing with a shot on goal and two hits.

Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey rounded out the scoring on a beautiful backhand from the slot and added an assist, moving him to 55 points in 53 games — leaving him one point behind Dustin Byfuglien for the franchise record for points by a defenceman.

“I mean, he’s got two sides of the blade. He uses it pretty well all over the ice and there’s nothing Josh can’t do,” said Wheeler. “The play to take it off the wall really was the play, that’s the elite ability only a handful of guys can do in this league. From there, great screen by (Karson) Kuhlman in front of the net to give him a chance to slide one in there. Josh is elite.” 

The Jets improved to 33-19-1 on the season and moved within three points of the Dallas Stars in the chase for top spot in the Central Division standings while still holding a game in hand.

Hellebuyck was rock-solid once again, making 31 saves to earn his 25th victory of the season and he was quick to praise how well his team played in front of him.

“We’ve just got to really fine-tune our details and get closer to that playoff style and that playoff hockey,” said Hellebuyck. “I think we know how we play, I think we want to play it and I think we are playing it. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning it.”

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