WINNIPEG - Sunday's optional practice may have been lightly attended, but it was full steam ahead for the Winnipeg Jets on Monday as they prepare to close out a three-game home stand against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.
Defenceman Dmitry Kulikov remembers the last meeting with the Predators quite well - although this time, he'd like a different outcome.
"It's always been good games between us and the Predators," said Kulikov. "The last game their goalie, I feel like, stole the game for them. We'll see how this one goes."
That game was Kulikov's second outing back from an upper-body injury that sidelined him for 18 games.
Video: PRACTICE | Dmitry Kulikov
He recorded an assist in Winnipeg's 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, a victory he said was big for the team's confidence heading into the third meeting of the season with the Predators.
"We felt like it was coming. The team was playing good," he said. "We were more defensive minded and tried to take care of our zone first. Nobody was leaving the zone early to cheat for offence. That's what we have to do for the rest of the season to keep winning games."
Kulikov's defence partner, Sami Niku, also found his way onto the scoresheet against St. Louis with two assists.
It was the second multi-point game of the 23-year-old's career.
While Niku also picked up a holding penalty in the game, Maurice said he won't spend much time talking with the young defenceman about it. After all, it was the same kind of penalty that Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, and even Toby Enstrom, took early in their careers as the learned how to handle bigger forwards on the forecheck.
"That's a real challenge for a smaller man to take on a bigger man. It's totally about experience," said Maurice. "There is some strength, there is some experience, how many times can you keep that from happening? Go back and get it first, use that speed and hand skills so that one-on-one doesn't happen as often. Then the next is when you get into that, how do you handle it?"
Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice
While Niku learns that skill, he's becoming even better at the assets that make him an NHL defenceman.
Those skills, in Maurice's mind, are what buy Niku time to learn how to handle other aspects of the game.
"Last game he was pretty good. Off a D-zone face-off, out, in the middle, up the pipe - three up the pipe right on the tape - a couple good pulls off the wall. He can do that in the offensive zone," said Maurice. "As long as that's there, we'll be patient in the time it takes him."
The defensive pairs, as well as the forward lines, remained in-tact at practice on Monday:
While Maurice has liked the effort from his team dating back to even before the break, he's seen them take another step in the past three games.
After allowing double-digit high danger chances in four straight games dating back to the 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg has cut those right down in the past two.
Video: PRACTICE | Nikolaj Ehlers
In general terms, Maurice said the difference has come down to "compete." But it's not that the team isn't giving it all they have night in and night out, he explains.
"If you put me on a bike today I couldn't go very hard on it. But if I had to go on that bike every day for six months, I might be able to do a little bit more," said Maurice. "There is a mental capacity to learning how to work that hard every night for young players."
That is what makes some decisions difficult for the Jets coach. The window for Nathan Beaulieu to return from his injury opened on January 31 and while the defenceman used the extra few days to heal, it's not easy to select any player on the back end to come out of the line-up.
"You could expand that back to Carolina in these last four games - really since the pairings switched in a lot of ways," said Maurice. "There isn't going to be an easy conversation for me to take somebody out if Nathan is to go in."
Whatever the line-up is, Maurice wants to see the Jets continue to deliver the type of game they have over the last four.
"If we do the things that we've done in our last four games from now until the end of the season - you're going to have one or two that you don't like, nobody is that consistent, nobody can be - but if you can get to that level, then your team is getting better," he said. "You have a chance to win. If you don't get to that level now, this year, you're not winning. But if you don't get to that level at some point, you're never winning.
"Building that, your core is that constant engagement in the game, constant engagement in the hard parts of the game, then you have a chance to win."