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Wheeler "itching" to get going

Jets captain excited to begin regular season tomorrow

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick /

WINNIPEG - Just drop the puck, already, will ya?

That was the sentiment Wednesday from Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who, after weeks of toiling in this formality called the preseason, has understandably lost his appetite for additional tune-ups.

It's time to play for real.

"Just itching now," Wheeler said following practice - the 18th of the season so far - at MTS Iceplex. "Camp kind of wears you out a bit. … It's like you're being held back a little bit. Definitely excited [to get going]."

The Jets open the 2016-17 regular season tomorrow against the Carolina Hurricanes at MTS Centre (7:00pm CT, TSN3). After missing the playoffs with a 35-39-8 record for 78 points last year, the Jets are entering the new year with a new look, with rookies Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Brandon Tanev and Josh Morrissey in the fold, along with newcomer Shawn Matthias, who signed as a free agent on Jul. 1.

Video: PRACTICE | Blake Wheeler

"You should expect a team that's working hard every night," Wheeler said. "As long as we work and we battle, and give ourselves an opportunity to win every night, that's the pass or fail on our end. We feel we have enough ability in here to win more than we lose if we do those things."

Wheeler, who just turned 30, will be looking to build on a career-high 2015-16 campaign in which he produced 26 goals and 52 assists. But he isn't about to get caught up in the numbers, which he says are a by-product of the work and the effort put in to help the team achieve its goals.

"If I'm able to match what I put into every game last year I'll be satisfied, no matter if those numbers go up or down," he said. "You want to contribute to wins, and I feel that the way I prepare myself to play every night gives myself to help our team win."

The Jets will open the season with the top line of Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele leading the way offensively. Matthias and Drew Stafford both missed the past week-and-a-half due to injury, but skated with Bryan Little on the second line today at practice, with Alexander Burmistrov rotating in and out, while Connor, Laine and Mathieu Perreault made up the third line.

Tanev, Adam Lowry, Joel Armia and Chris Thorburn all took a turn on the fourth line.

It's important to note, however, that two of these forwards will have to be scratched and Maurice has not confirmed the full lineup just yet. Still, there are some intriguing trios in play, and the coach is excited to see that they can do.

Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice

"Connor's an interesting player over the last three weeks," Maurice said. "For a guy that's spent so much of his time scoring and setting up goals, he's really grasped the defensive part of the game. … Patrik has done a lot of great work on the right side, but we really do view him as a two-position forward. Getting some time on the right now as well, we'll enjoy watching him grow."

All seven defencemen - Morrissey, Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Tyler Myers, Mark Stuart, Ben Chiarot and Paul Postma - rotated the pairs all practice.

Maurice has not yet named the starting goaltender for tomorrow night.

"We're going to let these guys play and develop," Maurice said. "We're going to be really, really careful that we don't put a ceiling on our team as far as expectations about who we're going to be eight months from now. We're going to go out every game with the expectation that if we play our 'A' game, we're going to win that game. That's our responsibility, to come prepared to play that 'A' game every night."

- Ryan Dittrick,

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