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Stastny’s assist milestone a testament to his rejuvenation with Jets

| December 19, 2021, 11:37 PM

December 19, 2021, 11:37 PM

WINNIPEG – If you were ever wondering about how the Winnipeg Jets feel about Paul Stastny, seeing how Nikolaj Ehlers reacted to a milestone moment told you all that you needed to know.

When Ehlers opened the scoring in Sunday’s game with the St. Louis Blues early in the second period, he was so quick to scoop the puck out of the net behind Jordan Binnington that some of his teammates weren’t actually sure the red light had even gone on.

But this wasn’t a personal achievement that Ehlers was celebrating and the only reason he was in such a hurry to retrieve the puck was that he wanted to ensure Stastny had a souvenir to celebrate the 500th assist of his storied NHL career.

“(Adam Lowry) said that it almost looked like I grabbed the puck before it went in. I mean, everyone has known he needed that one to get 500,” said Ehlers. “It’s awesome. It’s exciting. Now, he’s never going to forget about me.”

Ehlers was joking with that last comment, but the truth is that his play in the first two games of the Dave Lowry era have essentially been unforgettable.

For a team that’s looking to play faster, the fastest player on the Jets has been leading the way with his inspired efforts.

With a goal and three helpers in Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Blues, Ehlers has now had a hand in each of the six goals scored during the past two games.

He’s been a play driver and he’s using his speed and vision to generate ample opportunities for himself (10 shots on goal and 16 shot attempts) and his linemates.

Scheifele was a guy who was under the microscope after the coaching change.

How would he respond to a new voice?

Would there be a renewed commitment to playing harder in the defensive zone?

Well, the early returns have been pretty good.

He’s been clicking well with Ehlers and Stastny is the perfect complement to that trio.

“When you have a big game, you need everybody going. But they took over the game,” said Dave Lowry. “They played at both ends. They defended really well, and because of that they had a lot of opportunities in the offensive zone.

“I believe they’re three different types of players. (Stastny) is an intelligent veteran, Scheifele is skill and (Ehlers) has speed. And they feed off each other and look to create offence. The challenge is we challenge them to make sure they play a 200-foot game, and they did.”

Ehlers was sent to the quiet room by the concussion spotter midway through the first period after he was on the receiving end of a hit from Blues forward Logan Brown that resulted in a minor penalty for boarding.

But Ehlers exhibited no symptoms and passed his test, so he was allowed to return to action.

“I don’t think the hit was awful,” said Ehlers. “He’s a big boy. I was standing with my side to the boards and hit my head into the boards.”

There was some symmetry in Stastny recording his point against the Blues, a team that he enjoyed a great amount of success with during four seasons after signing a lucrative free-agent deal with the franchise his Hall of Fame father Peter also played with.

The Blues were also the team that chose to trade Stastny to the Jets at the NHL trade deadline back in 2018, a move that helped rejuvenate his career.

And while Stastny took a detour that included two seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights after choosing to sign with them as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018 (after giving strong consideration to stay with the Jets), the veteran forward eventually returned to Winnipeg.

A second trade was made to bring Stastny back in October of 2020 and his services were retained in free agency last off-season.

In many ways, Stastny has grown into the conscience of this group, an experienced voice who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is or to challenge his teammates when the time is right.

He’s got an analytical mind, processes the game extremely well and he’s still driven to be an important contributor.

“There’s a reason why Paul was brought back. There is value in the veteran, and he has an understanding of how to play, he has an understanding of how to win,” said Dave Lowry. “He’s a reliable guy. He can complement on the offensive side, but he’s out there playing big minutes on the penalty kill as well.”

Although he spent a good chunk of the season on the third line with Adam Lowry, Stastny is in a groove after moving up in the lineup and is playing some of his best hockey since the promotion to the top line with Ehlers and Scheifele.

“It was a prime Paul Stastny type game,” said Scheifele, who chipped in a goal and an assist. “He’s so smart, always in the right spot, always makes the right play and when you go to the right areas and make the right plays, you get rewarded and I think it was one of those patented Paul Stastny games.”

In Sunday’s game, Stastny also scored a pair of goals – the first of which was a sneak-attack from a sharp angle that flummoxed Binnington and ended up being the game-winner.

The second was equally important, as it came just 16 seconds after the Blues had scored a shorthanded marker to pull within a goal.

“(Stastny) is the smartest player I’ve ever played with,” said Ehlers. “The plays that he makes, they may seem so simple, but he makes them every single time. He makes it so much easier for me to know when the pass is coming, to know when he’s going to wait with it and pass it at a better time. And with (Scheifele) up the middle, the speed that he has… also a guy who makes incredible passes. I just think we’re using our strengths and it’s working really well right now. We’ve got to keep that going.”

The game was a special one for Kristian Reichel, who made his NHL debut after injuries knocked David Gustafsson and Evgeny Svechnikov out of the lineup and a non-COVID-related illness also sidelined defenceman Nate Schmidt.

Reichel, an undrafted free agent and son of longtime NHLer Robert Reichel, worked his way up the Jets organizational depth chart after initially signing a contract with the Manitoba Moose in July 2018.

He turned that into a two-way, two-year entry-level contract with the Jets in June 2020 and on Sunday he was officially recalled and jumped right into the lineup on the fourth line with C.J. Suess and Jansen Harkins.

“Just keep working hard. If you work your ass off every day, sometimes you will get rewarded for that,” said Reichel, when asked for a message he might send to fellow undrafted players. “For me personally, it was just a booster because I wasn’t drafted. I had extra motivation to prove everybody wrong, that I belong and I want to get a shot and just keeping working hard and staying focused and be a good guy, you’ll get rewarded.”

It was also a special game for Lowry, who picked up his first NHL victory on an afternoon the Jets showed some urgency against a Blues team that had gone 5-0-2 going into the contest and had an opportunity to build a 10-point cushion in the Central Division standings with a victory.

Instead, the Jets narrowed the gap to six points and evened the season series in what will be the final game before the Christmas break after the increased number of COVID-19 cases around the NHL and concerns about cross-border travel caused the postponement of Tuesday’s game against the Nashville Predators and Wednesday’s matchup with the Dallas Stars.

The earliest the Jets will return to action is Dec. 27, when they’re scheduled to host the Minnesota Wild.

Given the unexpected departure of Paul Maurice on Friday, you can bet the Jets will enjoy the chance to take exhale and spend a few additional practice days that could serve as a mini-training camp as Lowry continues to work to put his stamp on this group.

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