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Jets' playoff atmosphere motivates prospect Ehlers

by Arpon Basu

Nikolaj Ehlers got a taste of what it's like to be part of the Winnipeg Jets during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All it did was leave him wanting more.

Ehlers, the No. 9 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, was at MTS Centre last April when the Jets played Game 4 of their Western Conference First Round series against the Anaheim Ducks. The night before, Ehlers was in uniform with the Halifax Mooseheads as they lost Game 7 of their second round series in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs to the Moncton Wildcats.

Ehlers arrived in Winnipeg the afternoon of the game on April 22, went to his hotel in Winnipeg, got changed and headed for the rink.

He had no idea what he was about to see.

The sold-out MTS Centre was in full "Winnipeg Whiteout" mode, with the fans decked out completely in white blowing the roof off the building in an attempt to encourage the Jets to their first victory in the first NHL playoff series in the city in 19 years.

The Jets couldn't do it, losing the game 5-2 as the Ducks completed the sweep.

But the fans left an impression on Ehlers, something he hopes to experience from a different vantage point the next time the Jets host a playoff game.

"I've played in front of 17,000 in Switzerland, I played in front of 10,000 in Halifax and they were great fans. In Halifax they were amazing," Ehlers said this week at the NHL Players' Association Rookie Showcase. "But when I came to that game, the crowd was unreal. You just thought to yourself that you want to be out there and play that game because it's going to be an experience you're never going to forget.

"I talked to some of the players after the game, and they said it was unreal. It would have been nice to be out there and play the game, but just being there to experience that was amazing."

With the Jets desperate to get a victory, there had been some speculation leading up to the game on the possibility of Ehlers playing, even though it seemed a bit far-fetched. A 6-foot, 168-pound right wing, Ehlers had an incredible 2014-15 season with the Mooseheads, scoring 37 goals and 101 points in 51 regular-season games and 10 goals and 31 points in 14 playoff games.

Adding offense like that in an elimination scenario can be tempting, but Ehlers didn't hear any of that chatter beforehand and said it was never a possibility to begin with.

"No, not really, and I didn't think I was going to play because I had played the night before in Moncton in Game 7 and I got in so late," he said. "I don't know if it would have been that fair to the other players, and I'm OK with that. I just wanted to be there to experience it and kind of see what it's like to be in that situation and see what the players do. So it was nice to just be there."

Ehlers is part of a bright future in Winnipeg, one of a crop of skilled prospects who have been drafted since the franchise moved from Atlanta in 2011 but have yet to reach the NHL like defenseman Josh Morrissey (No. 13 pick, 2013 draft), forward Nicolas Petan (No. 43, 2013) and goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck (No. 130, 2012) and Eric Comrie (No. 59, 2013).

If his motivation to play in the NHL is already as high as it can be, Ehlers' experience watching that one playoff game has made him that much more motivated to make sure it happens in Winnipeg.

"It was how passionate the fans were. You know, a lot of fans are passionate in other countries and other cities, but this was …," Ehlers said, before trailing off, struggling to find the word to describe it. "Even now, I've been in Winnipeg for two weeks and all I see is people walking around in their Jets jerseys. It's amazing to be in Winnipeg, and probably even more amazing during the hockey season. So when I look back at the game, it was incredible."

Ehlers believes that experience could even have a tangible impact on his chances of making the team out of training camp. Or at least he's hoping that's the case.

"It’s going to help me a lot," he said. "I think I realized what I'm going to be up against if I play [in the NHL]. So it helped me a lot during the summer training, with the workouts I had. I think it helped me a lot. It's going to be exciting if I can put that into my on-ice [performance] now.

"I've been excited all summer for camp, and it's going to be an exciting camp for all the guys that are going to be there. It'll be tough, but I feel like I'm ready. Obviously it's their decision if I'm going to play, but I'm going to go out there and do my job to show them that I can play this year."

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