NEW YORK -- It was a thinking man's play, an understated, clever decision that made a huge difference on the first of forward Patrik Laine's three goals Tuesday.
It was also the kind of play the Winnipeg Jets have already come to expect from center Paul Stastny, who in four games since he was acquired from the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 26 has impacted his new team in so many areas, adding a layer of depth to the lineup and to the Jets' confidence about their chances to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I'm just setting a pick for [Laine]," Stastny said after the Jets' 3-0 win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. "I take my ice. Because I stop and I hold my ground, it's just a good hockey play."
It started when Stastny got the puck from defenseman Dustin Byfuglien on the left-wing half-wall. He was coming up the wall and cut toward the top of the circle, then passed to Laine, who was coming down from the left point, and immediately turned toward the net.
At that moment, Stastny, who stayed in his lane, bumped into Rangers defenseman John Gilmour, whose job was to defend Laine. Stastny didn't push forward; instead, he let his momentum take him gliding a few feet.
"He didn't step into the guy, didn't interfere with him, so he doesn't take a penalty," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "It's a clean play."
Laine, with the puck, followed Stastny into the circle. With Gilmour tied up, he had time and space to get his shot off from the face-off dot. He didn't miss.
"It's just an extra half-second that he gives us," Laine said, "and that's enough on those plays."
Stastny and his linemates, Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, have combined for 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in four games since the trade. Stastny has five points (two goals, three assists), Laine has 10, including seven goals, and Ehlers has four (one goal, three assists).
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But tjhe production is only part of why Stastny is so important to the Jets, who are second in the Central Division with 89 points, six fewer than the first-place Nashville Predators and six more than the third-place Minnesota Wild.
"He does so many of the things Ronnie Francis would do," Jets coach Paul Maurice said, referencing the Hall of Fame center he coached for six seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. "He has such a great understanding of what's going on on the ice, the adjustments the other teams are making and what's happening around him."
Stastny's cerebral nature has helped him quickly mesh with Laine and Ehlers, dynamic, smart and savvy players who are at their best when they're playing on their instincts. Stastny lets them do that by essentially doing the thinking for them, like he did for Laine against the Rangers, or like he has already told Ehlers he will do for him.
"I told Nicky that if we have a 2-on-2, just wait, I'll go to the middle and I'll take that guy so when you cut across you'll have that extra second," Stastny said.
"My mindset is to have them play the same game and not think. I'll overthink it or I'll cover up for mistakes, but they just go out there and you kind of feed off of that."
Stastny also gives Maurice matchup advantages he didn't previously have.
Instead of being locked in to using Bryan Little against the opposition's top line on most nights, Maurice can toggle between Stastny and Little and even at times use Mark Scheifele or Andrew Copp, currently the Jets' fourth-line center.
Scheifele sustained an upper-body injury against the Rangers and didn't play the third period. Maurice said he was hopeful Scheifele would be OK, but his status for Winnipeg's game at the New Jersey Devils on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, TSN3, NHL.TV) is unknown.
"He tries to play us against whoever he wants us to play against," Ehlers said.
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In addition, Stastny gives the Jets another two-way center who can win faceoffs on either side of the defensive zone, which is a hugely important detail to getting favorable matchups at home, where the Jets have the last-change advantage, or on the road, where they don't.
Stastny has won 61.9 percent (39 of 63) of his faceoffs with the Jets, including 78.9 percent in the defensive zone (15 of 19). He won 55.2 percent (677 of 1,227) in 63 games with the Blues.
"Maybe one of our lines gets a second- or third-line matchup, or a 3-4 or a 5-6 D-man, and that changes things," Scheifele said prior to the game Tuesday. "You see the good teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the world, they have four lines going when they've been winning Stanley Cups, and that's what you need to go far in this league."
The Jets were one of the best teams in the NHL through three quarters of the season without Stastny. Maybe they could have gone far without him too. But sometimes a team doesn't realize it has holes in its lineup until it either finds someone to fill them or it gets eliminated.
Stastny makes the Jets a more complete team and he's made enough of an impact already to safely say they have a better chance of going deep in the playoffs now than they did before.
For a sample of proof, just go back and watch what Stastny did on Laine's first goal Tuesday.
"If he doesn't do that, [Gilmour] comes out with his stick and Patty has to turn around or shoot it backhand," Ehlers said. "That's a pretty good play. That's what he can do, and that's not all he does."