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Laine evolving overall game in third season for Jets

Forward, learning from 'idol' Ovechkin, focused on continued defensive development

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Patrik Laine was talking Saturday about what he can learn from Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin's evolution into a more complete player when his Winnipeg Jets teammate, Nikolaj Ehlers, called out to him from across the locker room.

"Patty," Ehlers said, "Is your favorite player Ovechkin?" 

"No," Laine said, without hesitating. "You are."

 

[RELATED: Jets-Capitals game recap]

 

Facing Ovechkin in Winnipeg's 3-1 loss to Washington at Capital One Arena on Sunday might not have been the thrill for Laine it once was, but the 20-year-old forward still refers to him as, "one of my biggest idols," and recognizes there are things he can pick up from watching him. 

"There's a lot I can probably learn," Laine said. "But we're still two different players. Everybody is unique, and everybody has their own skills that they're really good at."

Video: MIN@WPG: Chiarot's shot goes in off Laine

The obvious skill Laine and Ovechkin have in common as forwards is the ability to score goals. Neither did that Sunday, but Ovechkin leads the NHL again this season with 46 and is closing in on the eighth 50-goal season of his 14-season NHL career.

Laine, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, has gone through some ups and downs this season but is one goal away from reaching 30 for the third time in as many NHL seasons. Since joining Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on Winnipeg's top line, he has nine points (four goals, five assists) in the past nine games.

But it was a frustrating night against the Capitals with the Jets going 0-for-5 on the power play, including a 5-on-3 for 1:34 in the first period.

"There's things we need to work on, but tight game against the Stanley Cup champs in their building," Laine said. "I don't think it's a bad game."

While Jets coach Paul Maurice has been excited to see Laine learning to use his size (6-foot-5, 206 pounds) to become the power forward Winnipeg envisions him being, he has been most pleased with Laine's play away from the puck. 

"We needed him to do the other things, the 5-on-5 things, his awareness that it's important," Maurice said. "That's probably it. Young players, all of a sudden they wake up one day and go, 'I've got to do everything. I've got to finish my checks, I've got to backcheck, I've got to win the battles on the wall, I've got to do all those things.'"

Skating on the top line usually brings a difficult matchup against a top scoring line or a checking line focused on shutting them down. On Sunday, Laine saw a lot of Washington's second line of Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.

Regardless, being responsible defensively is essential in the role Laine is now playing, and he understands that.

"Always learning through experiences, especially those times when you're not scoring, when the puck is not going into the net, and that's what I do best," Laine said. "It's always tough, but then you start thinking about all of the other things more. And what can I do better? And how can I get more chances and still play good defense? Playing good defense is going to win you championships, I know that."

Video: WPG@ARI: Laine wires home one-timer for PPG

Maurice, who coached against Ovechkin many times during his second stint with the Carolina Hurricanes (2008-2011), noted that it took him some time to learn the lessons Laine is now. But Ovechkin eventually did and was rewarded last season when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup for the first time.

That, of course, is the primary objective for Laine and the Jets (40-24-4), who lead the Nashville Predators by one point for first place in the Central Division.

"These guys do carry a completely different kind of pressure to produce numbers," Maurice said of Ovechkin and Laine. "They're known for it, it's their brand, they're paid for it, so there's a pressure that comes with that. So it takes those guys sometimes a little bit of time to build patience into their game because they feel that pressure. I think [Ovechkin] has. He's done a marvelous job of growing as a player over the course of his career."

Sometimes it's easy to forget that Laine is early in his career. He'll turn 21 on April 19, but the expectations are high. 

Matching the consistency of Ovechkin, whose 10 seasons with at least 45 goals are the most in NHL history, is a difficult challenge, especially with the 33-year-old showing no signs of slowing down.

"I think he's speeding up," Laine said. "It's awesome to see that one of my biggest idols is doing that well.  … I think he's probably going to get another 50-goal season again."

Laine realizes he has some work to do to reach that level, beginning with cutting down on the length of his unproductive stretches. After scoring 18 goals in 12 games in November, including five against the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 24, he scored four in his next 36 games before ending a 15-game drought against the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 22.

Just as important is maintaining his level of play in other areas during the times the puck isn't going in for him.

"There's always going to be times when you're not scoring, but still that's not the full game," Laine said. "There's still 17 minutes you need to play pretty much without the puck. So there's obviously those small things that we need to do well as a team that everybody in this locker room appreciates. So you've just got to do those things when you're not scoring and you've got to do that all the times. It doesn't matter if you're scoring or not."

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