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Jets prepare to face Lightning in road trip's second stop

"They want to play with a lot of speed, which means I get to play with my speed." -Ehlers

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

TAMPA, FLORIDA - Nikolaj Ehlers couldn't quite put a finger on it, but if he had to guess, his personal success against the Tampa Bay Lightning in previous years might just come down to one thing: speed.

The Danish winger has six goals - and nine total points - in eight career games against the Lightning and is looking forward to Saturday's match-up at Amalie Arena.

"They play the game that fits my game," Ehlers said after Winnipeg's 30-minute practice on Friday. "They want to play with a lot of speed, which means I get to play with my speed. They don't slow down the game. 

"I think the speed game definitely helps me a lot."

Video: PRACTICE | Nikolaj Ehlers

The 23-year-old scored his eighth goal of the season in Thursday's 4-3 Jets win over the Florida Panthers, tying him for the team-lead with Mark Scheifele.

But the biggest growth in his game since he arrived in the National Hockey League hasn't been in the offensive side of the ice. He's always had that skill, of course. This is the same Ehlers that posted 100 points or more in each of his two seasons with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

He's learned that the majority of offence in the NHL starts in the defensive zone.

"I was a guy who did a lot of circles instead of starting and stopping, which is probably the biggest part of your defence," Ehlers said. "Once I got that down, which I think I've been doing well this season, it's helped me in getting pucks out of our zone and being in the right position for a shot from the blue line or whatever it is.

"I've realized that if you want your offence, you have to get out of your D-zone."

He's not alone in that department though, says Jets head coach Paul Maurice. Out of the 12 forwards that played against the Panthers two nights ago, nine fall into the category of 26 and under. Even further than that, four of those nine are under 24-years-old.

"We're really young at front and we've got a young group overall. We're young on the wings. Those guys don't come into the league having learned about defensive hockey. They got drafted because they can score goals and make plays. They also have never seen the National Hockey League and the speed of it," said Maurice.

"So you're asking them to make reads they've never been asked to read in a game that's faster than any game they've ever seen.

"We like where we're going with it."

Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice

While the group was still learning how to play with a number of new faces on the back end earlier in the season, the team was near the bottom of the league in terms of goals against. But as they've worked at it, they've improved that ranking steadily.

As of Friday, they've allowed the 13th most goals, nearing the middle of the NHL pack.

Even when a goal against does happen, Maurice likes how the team approaches the next shift.

"There are lots of parts of our hockey game that we can make better. But their emotional level has been really consistent this year," said Maurice, who credits the leadership in the room for that. 

"We had a whole string of very strange things happen to our team - from the summer right through. That's how we've handled the game. Something funny happens on the ice, a guy falls down, or they score a goal. We just go on to the next shift," Maurice said.

"That's a great identity to have."

The win over the Panthers was Winnipeg's sixth road win in nine tries. To get their seventh, they'll have to beat a Lightning squad that is 4-1-1 at home and have won three straight.

Video: PRACTICE | Andrew Copp

In their last outing, Tampa (9-5-2) handed the New York Rangers a 9-3 loss.

"They're dangerous offensively. Lines one through four can produce," said Andrew Copp. "We're going to have to play a full 60 minutes. If we let off the gas at all - especially in this building - they're going to be coming down our throats and putting a lot of pressure on."

Through the early season road success, Copp feels the Jets are getting closer to efforts they can replicate night in and night out.

"With that said, we have to keep getting better. It's easy to say we've won games, but we have to continue to get better," said Copp. "I feel we're doing the right things, we're building, but we have to continue to get better. There are a few of these games where they haven't felt like NHL wins. If we come out of the game saying if we play like that every night, we won't win as many as we lose. Helly has been fantastic and we're going to need him to continue to be good.

"The last six or seven games we've been a lot better in front of him. Hopefully we can continue that on and start piling up some points here."

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