WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets needed Drew Stafford
's offense in February and March when they were dealing with injuries in their lineup, and they will need him to continue to produce in April in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
On March 14, the Jets were fighting to retain their hold on a wild card in the Western Conference. That night, Jets coach Paul Maurice debuted a line against the Tampa Bay Lightning. First-line center Bryan Little's recovery from an upper-body injury had slowed, and left wing Mathieu Perreault had already been out a month with a lower-body injury.
Maurice decided to put right wing Blake Wheeler and center Mark Scheifele together with Stafford on left wing. Against the Lightning, who were tied for the NHL lead in home wins at the time, the Jets won 2-1 on third-period goals from Wheeler and Stafford.
"The chemistry is there," said Stafford, who came to Winnipeg in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 11. "We've been able to produce."
From that game against the Lightning, Stafford, went on a nine-game point streak (four goals, seven assists), the longest of his NHL career.
After uniting with Stafford, Wheeler had seven goals, and Scheifele had four goals and four assists.
Stafford, 29, adapted well after a multiplayer trade with Buffalo that sent him and defenseman Tyler Myers to Winnipeg. The move was a major step toward fortifying the franchise for its first playoff appearance since the 2006-07 season when it was the Atlanta Thrashers.
The move for Stafford came as a much-needed fresh start. He had nine goals and 15 assists in 50 games with Buffalo.
Scheifele and Wheeler played together with a rotating left wing; Stafford, who spent some time with Scheifele after the trade, ended up being the missing piece that turned them into a dangerous line.
At 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, Stafford is not an overly physical player, but he can play either wing and use his size when peeling off the boards to protect the puck and take it to the net. His brawn has meshed with Wheeler's speed and Scheifele's on-ice vision and passing skills to form the reliable second line that eluded the Jets in previous seasons.
"[Scheifele and Wheeler each] have high hockey IQs," Stafford said. "They think the game well. With their size and speed, and I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with size and some speed, I think we're able to create space for each other with our size. The more space you create, the more room you have out there, your skillset will take over.
"I think it all starts with our size. Being strong and hanging on to pucks down low, it's very hard for teams to defend that."
Scheifele agreed that the new line has been very productive.
"[Each] player can take that shot from the slot," Scheifele said. "[Each] guy can make that pass to the slot. [Each] guy can win a battle in the corner and spin off a [defender] and create space for each other, and I think that is why it makes [the line] dangerous."
With Little and Perreault out of the lineup, having a productive second line took some of the offensive burden off captain Andrew Ladd. In effect, the Jets became a team with two top lines, each capable of scoring while playing the defensively responsible game Maurice and his system demand.
"Our line is relied upon heavily for a lot of offense," Stafford said.
But the contributions went beyond offense as the Jets made their playoff push. The line showed another side to its game when Maurice matched them against the Washington Capitals' top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson on March 21.
"[That] line probably did the only thing you can do against that [Washington] line, and that's control the puck," Maurice said after Winnipeg shut out the Capitals 3-0 and limited that line to four shots.
"[Stafford] makes great reads. He does some really, really good things with the puck from the top of the circles on down. He has a really good idea of when [the puck] just needs to go to the net … or when to pull up and make a play. Because [Scheifele and Wheeler] are so quick, they can react off that."
A nine-year veteran, Stafford has played 20 playoff games and offers postseason experience many Jets lack.
Little and Perreault each returned at the end of March and bolstered Winnipeg's depth, but to stay in the playoffs, Winnipeg will need Stafford to continue to be the piece that helps drive its second line.
"It's why you play the game, to be part of the mix that is in the hunt for the playoffs," Stafford said. "When I was traded here, that's what I had in mind. I wanted to contribute and help these guys in any way possible."
Author: Patrick Williams | NHL.com Correspondent