– Blake Wheeler
is expected to be back in the lineup Sunday as the Winnipeg Jets host the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles in Game 3 of a four-game home stand.
Wheeler has missed the past two games – a win over Dallas and a shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues – with a lower-body injury after blocking a shot from Washington Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen. Wheeler played the following game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but by his own admission, struggled in over 22 minutes of ice time. As durable as they come, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound power forward has missed only four games total dating back to the 2011-12 season.
“If Blake comes to the rink tomorrow feeling the way he did, he’ll be in the lineup,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “He looked good. His stride was good.
“We’ll see tomorrow.”
Wheeler skated on a line with Adam Lowry and Chris Thorburn at Saturday’s practice.
“I’m happy to be on the other side of (the injury),” he said. “I haven't done anything for five days, so I felt pretty energized out there. We've played a lot of games and I've played a lot of minutes, so it's kind of a shock to the system when you're just sitting around and not allowed to be out there.
“I should have a lot of energy.”
Wheeler, who has 16 goals and 44 points this season, grinned when asked if he was back to full health.
“I don’t think anyone’s 100 percent at this time of year," he said. "You’ve got to do the best you can and I’m going to give everything I have the rest of the year.”
Wheeler is now eligible to come off IR, which means the Jets would have to make another move to make room for him on the 23-man roster prior to tomorrow’s matinee.
With No. 26 back in the fold, the full forward line combinations and defence pairings are as follows:
Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Michael Frolik
Jiri Tlusty - Mark Scheifele - Drew Stafford
Chris Thorburn - Adam Lowry - Blake Wheeler
Adam Pardy - Jim Slater - Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom - Tyler Myers
Jay Harrison - Dustin Byfuglien
Mark Stuart - Jacob Trouba
“We’ll start there,” Maurice said. “I really like the way Little’s line has looked these past two games, and Scheif’s line had 12 shots on goal against a very good defensive team and a real strong offensive line that they were matched against.”
The starting goaltender has yet to be named.
Michael Hutchinson has started five of the past six games and has not lost in regulation since Feb. 2, going 4-0-3.
Jonathan Quick is expected to get the call for the Kings, who are 8-2-0 in their last 10. Quick, who has a 2.35 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage, is 25-16-10 on the year.
The Kings are coming off back-to-back losses (1-0 to the Ottawa Senators and 4-2 to the Anaheim Ducks) after putting together an eight-game winning streak. At 29-20-12, the Kings currently sit third in the Pacific Division with 70 points. The Jets, meanwhile, continue to lead the Western Conference Wild Card with 74 points, three up on the Minnesota Wild and four on the first non-playoff team, the Calgary Flames.
“It’s going to be the same kind of game [as Friday],” Maurice said. “They have one way that they want to play and they’ve been consistent with it. They’ve got big bodies and clearly have some high-end skill as well.
“They’re in that (playoff) push now. The games they lose are tight and the games they win, they’re good strong, strong and powerful. They’re moving a little quicker and a little faster with everything they do.”
This is the third and final meeting between these two teams this season. The Kings won 4-1 on Oct. 12, but back at Staples Center on Jan. 10, the Jets got the better of the home side, winning 5-4 in a shootout.
“They’re playing really well. They have a lot of firepower and their guys no how to win,” Jets defenceman Mark Stuart said. “It’s going to be a really tough game – physical, tight. We’re expecting the same from everybody for the rest of the season here. … But we know that if we’ve got everybody going and we’re playing our system well, we can beat anyone in the league.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com