“When you’re going out there feeling good about yourself and making plays and being able to do things you’re able to do, the game becomes a lot easier,” said Wheeler after morning practice.
The rookie certainly made it look easy tonight, as the youngster played like a veteran during the B’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, contributing a hat trick’s worth of goals, just a month after making it to the NHL.
“It’s only about 20-minutes old right now, so it’s kind of tough to put in words,” said Wheeler shortly after the game. “I’m just enjoying the ride right now; maybe later I’ll be able to soak it in a little bit more.”
Tonight was Wheeler’s first night with a new number – he switched from 42 to 26 today – prompted a lot of good-natured jokes that he should change numbers every night.
Although he gave several reasons for choosing 26, the most prevalent one was that it was a good number at his beloved University of Minnesota. NHLers Thomas Vanek and the Boston Bruins Phil Kessel wore it when they played there.
“I always knew I wanted to change from 42, but it’s not that huge of a deal to me, the whole number thing,” Wheels said. “But so far, 26 is working pretty well.”
No matter the number on his back, something clicked to give the 22 year-old his best game of the season. Wheeler stayed consistent with a goal each period, the first of which came at 7:46 of the first, thanks to a tip off a shot from the left side of the Toronto goal by defenseman Dennis Wideman.
“He saw me I think the whole way,” said the rookie, “and for whatever reason, the two defensemen were kind of clustered on the right side, and I think he saw me break to the net and did a great job of just throwing it out there for me, and I got enough of it to squeak it by.”
But that was just the beginning.
Goal number two put the Black & Gold up 3-0 a little more than five minutes into the second, when a pass from Marco Sturm made it to Wheeler, who tossed it past Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala.
“I knew once the puck came over to me, it was such a quick little play that [Toskala] was going to be sliding in pretty hard to the right side,” said Wheeler, “so I just went the other way.”
In the last two games, the Sturm – Krejci – Wheeler line has gelled. In fact, Sturm had two goals in the Dallas game last Saturday night.
“They make it pretty easy for me to just go up and down the wall, get into open spots,” said Wheeler. “All that success, you’ve got to give it to your linemates because they’re the ones that put the puck on your stick.”
As he headed into the final period with two goals, the entire bench was pulling for that final goal. Wheeler said he got the feeling they were deliberately setting him up sometimes.
“(My line was) out there for quite a bit of time, and I could hear (Shawn Thornton
) from the bench screaming to stay out there,” he said with a laugh. “I think it would have taken a pretty big effort for me to get on the bench.”
Once Toskala left the Toronto net with just 53 seconds remaining, everything fell into place.
As Wheelers shot traveled down the ice, hats flew from every direction, before the puck even hit the back of the net.
“To be honest, when I let the puck go off my stick, I was pretty sure I was going to miss it,” said Wheeler. “But it was awesome, just because it seals the win, everyone feels like it was over with.”
Wheeler remembered his last three goal night. It came during his sophomore year of college during a Final Five match-up against Wisconsin.
“This one’s pretty sweet, too,” he said.
With this hat trick, however, Wheeler now leads all NHL rookies in goals for the season, but the rookie sees it as just helping out his team.
“I take a lot of pride in going in and adding two points to our totals more than anything else,” Wheeler said. “We’re working towards something a lot bigger than anyone’s personal stats.
“If that means scoring, that’s great, but there’s a lot of other ways to contribute.”
Head coach Claude Julien knew that it was only a matter of time until Wheeler made a serious bid for spaces on the scoresheet.
“He’s the real deal,” said the coach. “We’ve said that all along.
“That’s why we kept him.”
Wheeler’s work ethic and attitude sealed the deal.
“He came into camp and worked hard and earned himself a spot in our lineup,” said Julien. “He’s an individual that hasn’t let the success get to him.
“He’s very modest, and that’s probably a sign of maturity.”
And while Wheeler may be humble about such a huge game, the rest of the team was more than willing to praise their new teammate.
“It’s good for the team when young guys go out and help the team win, especially early in the season,” said fellow rookie Matt Hunwick. “It gives him, and his linemates, more confidence to know that you can go out and count on someone on the third line to score a goal – or three.”
With tonight’s game, Wheeler extended his point streak to three games with goals number four, five and six for the season. In his last three games, he has four goals and two assists.
Tonight was also Wheeler’s first multi-goal NHL game. It just so happens that it came right after his first multi-point NHL game, the Bruins Saturday night win over the Dallas Stars.