WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets (9-9-2) received some good news this morning, and morning skate hadn’t even started.
Blake Wheeler, the team’s assistant captain, leader in points, and co-leader in assists, was on the ice, just one day after a Dustin Byfuglien wrist shot to the head forced him to leave practice.
“He’s been shooting at my head for five years now. To be honest it’s actually kind of amazing it took that long to finally hit me,” Wheeler said with a grin. “I’m 6’5. It’s kind of a long ways to shoot up to hit somebody in the head, but Buff’s pretty incredible.”
All kidding aside, the 29-year-old winger said he is feeling well today, but described the scare as “pretty painful.”
“It was initially pretty bad and luckily it hit me in a spot with a lot of bone,” he said.
Coach Paul Maurice said Wheeler reported feeling 100 percent, with the team doctors giving a similar assessment.
“He’s a tough kid. He’ll play through it,” said Maurice. “But, big smile on his face skating around. He’s fine.”
The Jets will need Wheeler’s speed and leadership when the take on an Arizona Coyotes team that sits third in the Pacific Division with a 10-8-1 record. Maurice says this Coyotes team has a different look than the 2014-2015 version.
“I think the big things are, they have four really veteran guys down the middle. They have a couple of young guys down the wing, some good speed on the wings,” Maurice said. “They’re a little more offensively dynamic than they’ve been in the past. Some good puck movers back there, and their goaltender is back stopping the puck, which was maybe their biggest challenge last year.”
Maurice named rookies Max Domi and Anthony Duclair as two reasons for the speed on the wings. The combined 27 points Domi and Duclair have this season puts them behind only Chicago for offensive production by NHL rookies this season. Domi also leads all rookies in goals with eight.
The Coyotes sit one point ahead of Winnipeg’s last opponent, the Vancouver Canucks. The Jets picked up a 4-1 win against the Canucks, in a game that defenceman Tyler Myers called one of the Jets’ best 60-minute efforts of the season.
“We responded the way we needed to after a tough road trip. We didn’t expect to go through all 82 games without adversity,” Myers said. “We responded well coming back home in front of our home fans. We need to bring that same intensity tonight.”
Maurice says with an off day on Thursday and a “grinder” of a practice on Friday, he’s expecting to see more jump in his team’s legs tonight.
“In some ways, this is our first game back from a road trip, in that the last one didn’t feel like that,” he said. “Now you’ve had your day off, your practice day, something that we haven’t had going into a home game since the end of October.”
October was a month where the Jets posted a 7-3-1 record. A six-game winless streak in November cooled that momentum a bit, but the team has been determined to get back to the style that has made them successful in the past.
With no line-up changes expected tonight, Wheeler says the Jets plan to keep building on the efforts they’ve put forward in the last two games.
“I think we had a good effort in St. Louis. I think we regained some confidence in what we do. We kind of looked like ourselves a bit again,” he said. “I think we built on that last game, and we had a really strong third period. Just get off to a good start tonight. These guys work hard, they’re a young bunch, and they’re pretty quick so it’s going to be a tough challenge tonight.”
The puck drops at 6 pm tonight at MTS Centre.
-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com