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Scheifele in spotlight for Jets entering Game 7 against Predators

Center, who has been under radar, can help Winnipeg reach Western Final with win

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Mark Scheifele has been preparing for Thursday his entire hockey career.

The 25-year-old center, perhaps one of the most under-the-radar players in the NHL, will be on center stage when his Winnipeg Jets visit the Nashville Predators in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round at Bridgestone Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). 

It will be a chance for Scheifele to not only help get the Jets to the conference final, one step closer to the Stanley Cup, but also an opportunity to reach his goal of being considered one of the League's best players. 

 

[RELATED: Jets fired up to face Predators in Game 7 | Complete Predators vs. Jets series coverage]

 

"No one strives to be second best," Scheifele said. "Everyone wants to be the best and that's exactly what I want; I want to push to be the best I can be and be one of the best in the world. You have to continue to work on things and continue to try to get an edge on anyone and that's what I try to do every day."

He leads Winnipeg with 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 11 postseason games, helping it to the first playoff series win in Atlanta Thrashers/Jets history. 

The nine goals are tied with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second most in the playoffs, one behind Crosby's teammate Jake Guentzel.

Video: Setting up a dramatic Jets-Predators Game 7

That he is even with Crosby, whose Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs Monday, is no small feat. During the North American Player Media Tour in September, Scheifele told NHL.com his goal was not only to be in the class of the three-time Stanley Cup winner, but to be better than him and 2017 Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.

He also said he wants to be mentioned among the League's elite players. 

"Obviously Sidney Crosby is a future Hall of Famer, unbelievable player," said Scheifele, who scored 60 points (23 goals, 37 assists) in 60 games this season and had an NHL career-high 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists) in 79 games last season. "But you want to strive for those guys."

Since replacing the injured Bryan Little as the Jets' No. 1 center against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 18, 2016, Scheifele has 176 points (72 goals, 104 assists) in 165 regular-season games, an average of 1.07 points per game. That average ranks seventh among NHL regulars behind McDavid (1.23), Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin (1.21), Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov (1.16), Crosby (1.15), Lightning center Steven Stamkos (1.10) and Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand (1.09).

Since that day, he has the NHL's best shooting percentage (19.7) among players who have scored at least 72 goals (his total).

But Scheifele's time with the Jets has not come without adversity and questions about his future in the NHL. Selected by Winnipeg at No. 7 in the 2011 NHL Draft, Scheifele made the Jets out of training camp his first two seasons but was sent to Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League after seven games (one goal) in 2011-12 and four games (no points) in 2012-13. He did not get called up to Winnipeg either season but has played at least 60 games for the Jets every season since 2013-14.

Dale Hawerchuk, a legendary Winnipeg forward during the first incarnation of the Jets, was Scheifele's first coach in Barrie. He said returning to junior hockey, especially the second time, was the best move for Scheifele's career.

"More than anything, it was time for him to take charge when he came back then," Hawerchuk said. "He needed to dominate and take charge of the team. And he did. He had a phenomenal year, a game-changer every night."

Scheifele had 79 points (39 goals, 40 assists) in 45 games and 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in 21 playoff games in 2012-13, helping Barrie reach Game 7 of the OHL final, where it lost to London. He said the support of Hawerchuk and his family helped get him over being demoted.

"Oh yeah, there are definitely times where you get frustrated and you're not in a good place," Scheifele said. "You get angry with everything. You get in a bad spot but I think, and I've said this before in other interviews, when you have a good support group around you like my family and my friends, people around me especially Dale Hawerchuk in Barrie, having mentors like that and people that are caring about you, it's easy to get through those tough days or tough weeks. And you always come back on top."

Before becoming Jets coach, Paul Maurice was an analyst for TSN. He remembers the talk surrounding Scheifele when he was sent back to Barrie the second time.  

Video: WPG@NSH, Gm5: Scheifele finishes Connor's dish

"The question on the panel that night was, 'Is Mark Scheifele a bust?'" said Maurice, who was Winnipeg coach Jan. 12, 2014. "Because he didn't come into the League at 18 and score 30 (goals), he got forgotten about a little bit. And then he came to the [Jets] in the first two or three years and we were truly rebuilding and young, so he wasn't noticed, but [nobody was] talking about [the] Hart Trophy.

"But he's just continued on the same pace to get better and he's emerging now as a player that people have to notice."

Hawerchuk said Scheifele has been overlooked partly because of Scheifele himself. 

"I think he's a lot like me in the sense that he doesn't go looking for that," said Hawerchuk, who scored 379 of his 518 NHL goals in nine seasons with the original Jets, who became the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes for the 1996-97 season. "He wants to be the best player he can be and be one of the boys. That's why we signed up to play the game."

Shane Hnidy, a former NHL defenseman and current Vegas Golden Knights TV analyst, spent six seasons calling Jets games on TSN and watched Scheifele's game improve each year. 

"I think the one thing that really stands out with Mark is his dedication to becoming that elite player," Hnidy said. "His (lack of) strength on the ice was the initial thing everybody saw. You could see the talent but to make that jump, you have to have the commitment to become an NHL player and even more of one to become an elite player and I think he's a guy who's done that."

Hnidy said Scheifele realized that he would have to improve his defense to become a top NHL center.

"If you want to be [an Anze] Kopitar, (Patrice) Bergeron or a Crosby, those guys play both ends of the ice," Hnidy said. "That's his game that's developed more than the offensive game."

Scheifele is getting closer to being thought of as one of the best players in the game, Hnidy said.

"Now it's about doing this consistently," he said. "That's probably the next step for Mark. He's still a young player. Two or three more years though of playing at this level will certainly put him more in the talk. 

"Somebody asked me about him the other day, if I thought he was like Bergeron. His offensive game might go beyond that. His defensive game might not get there. But I don't like comparing 1-to-1.

"I think he's a Mark Scheifele. He wants other people to wonder if they can be a Mark Scheifele."

A big performance in Game 7 against the Predators could go a long way toward doing just that. 

***

 

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