– Blake Wheeler
came under considerable criticism – or at least consternation – from Winnipeg Jets
fans and media when he failed to score through the first 18 games of the season.
The big, mobile right wing had scored 18 goals last season, and began the season on the Jets' top line with center Bryan Little
and left wing Andrew Ladd
. Back in October, fans and media saw Wheeler's track record and skill-set, preordaining him for at least 20 goals this season.
Wheeler finally scored on Nov. 17 at home against the Washington Capitals
, and his subsequent offensive awakening has helped key a 7-2-1 December mark for the Jets.
Right Wing - WPG
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 24
SOG: 74 | +/-: 11
After posting his first two-goal night of the season and adding an assist in a 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens
, Wheeler now has five goals and 12 assists over his past 16 games. Thursday's effort moved Wheeler into a tie for second on the team in scoring.
"It's a team sport, and our line has been scoring," said Wheeler, who had only three goals on the season before meeting the Canadiens. "You never want to be too picky if you're not the guy putting it in the net. It's awesome when your linemates are putting the puck in the net."
Jets coach Claude Noel
stuck with Wheeler through the early-season struggles, and Noel's faith is paying off. Wheeler's size, speed and ability to protect the puck has given the Jets a formidable first line, even in the absence of center Bryan Little
, who is out with a foot injury.
"When he skates, and he has the puck, he's a real factor," Noel said of Wheeler's strengths. "You really notice him in games like this when he skates like this. He is a hard guy to handle. We'd like to see this -- and I'm sure he would as well -- every night."
Wheeler's assist gave him a team-leading 19 and he reveled in setting up fourth-line center Tim Stapleton
's fourth goal of the season late in the third period against Montreal goaltender Carey Price
"To be honest with you, I'd rather have a guy like [Stapleton] put a goal in the net than for me to get a hat trick," Wheeler said. "Those are the kinds of guys that battle for you every night, and any time they're able to put in the net definitely makes the win a little sweeter."