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Chiarot heats up; Stuart, Enstrom could play Saturday

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets
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EL SEGUNDO, California – Averaging more than 18 minutes a night, 15 games into a blossoming National Hockey League career, rookie defenceman Ben Chiarot has made a remarkably quick transition to life in the bigs.

The 23-year-old was recalled from the St. John’s IceCaps on Dec. 2, 2014. Ever since, helping fill the void left by the throng of injured defencemen, Chiarot has developed into a dependable two-way defender, flourishing under big minutes and even bigger responsibility.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with the guys, in practices and games. I’m getting into a routine with everyone now,” Chiarot said after an up-tempo, 45-minute practice at the Toyota Sports Center.

“Getting used to everybody, getting used to the guys. The biggest thing is feeling comfortable at the NHL level with the pace of play and how strong guys are.”

Chiarot made his NHL debut last year against the Chicago Blackhawks, but the one-game stint did little to satisfy his craving for excellence. With four goals and nine points in 21 AHL games this season, he earned the call back up to Winnipeg.

Chiarot is currently paired with Dustin Byfuglien, who’s been a calming influence on the back end.

“He’s played a long time and he knows the ins and outs, so he calms things down for me,” Chiarot said. “That’s the biggest thing – not getting too high or too low in games. It’s about staying on an even keel, sticking to our game and not making mistakes.”

Chiarot, a product of Hamilton, ON, scored his first NHL goal on Jan. 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, gunning a shot off the crossbar and in for the magical moment he’d long been waiting for.

“It was a dream come true,” Chiarot said, smiling ear-to-ear. “It always feels good to contribute, even if it was a 5-1 game. It felt good and I’m glad it’s out of the way.

“The sound it made was the cherry on top.”

STUART, ENSTROM CLOSE?

Injured defenceman Mark Stuart and Toby Enstrom ditched the baby blue, non-contact sweaters at today’s practice. “One, maybe both,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said, could be available to play tomorrow against the Los Angeles Kings.

“They’re getting stronger every day. I’m comfortable from a fitness point of view, but we’ll talk more with the trainers. Again, they’re still at that stage where they have to come back the next day and feel as good or stronger than they did the day before.”

“I felt good,” Stuart said after an intense, 45-minute skate in sunny El Segundo. “I’ve got to prove to [the coaching staff] that I’m ready and we’ll go from there.

“It’s not about how long you go it’s about how hard you’re going and how focused you are during practice. We put together a pretty good skate out there today. Guys were engaged and we had a bad taste in our mouths after last night. That’s what you have to do after a loss to turn it around.”

Stuart (lower body) has been out since mid-December, while Enstrom (lower body) has been sidelined since Nov. 23.

Evander Kane (lower body) was also out of the powder blue silks at today’s practice.

“He’s full contact. Once a guy gets to full contact, you’re saying he’s had enough healing that you can have at him,” Maurice said. “At the same time, he’s fresh off that injury. The doctors will have to tell us he’s had enough healing and that any residual pain, he can deal with – and then we have to feel that he’s had enough practice time to be an effective player.”

-- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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