WINNIPEG — As they’ve done so many times over the years, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are equally adept at finishing one another’s sentences as they are at finishing off plays.
When you’ve been virtually attached at the hip on the ice for the better part of a decade, there is a level of chemistry that can be tough to replicate elsewhere.
But even for players who prefer to play on a line together, there comes a time and place during a season where there can be benefits to being split up, even if temporarily.
This is one of those times for the Winnipeg Jets, who suddenly have won six of the past eight games to stay in the thick of things when it comes to the Western Conference playoff race.
There are always extenuating circumstances that accompany a decision as important as this one — and more often than not, the head coach of the team doesn’t often feel like digging into them in a public forum.
So while Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry wasn’t going to put two members of his leadership core on blast, the message was clear for all to see.
Lowry needed a bit more at even strength from both Scheifele and Wheeler, especially in Thursday’s deflating loss to the Ottawa Senators, so he decided to take a crack at seeing what they could do on separate lines.
It wasn’t so much a punishment as a subtle message, a move made to light a bit of a fire in two guys the Jets need down the stretch if they’re going to keep things interesting in this congested wild card chase.
Both Wheeler and Scheifele have responded exactly how Lowry would have hoped, providing some inspired play that allowed the coach to throw them back out together for three shifts during Sunday’s 3-on-3 overtime period.
The final one of those shifts saw defenseman Josh Morrissey make a smart, aggressive read to pressure Lawson Crouse along the boards in the defensive zone before Wheeler pounced on the loose puck and chipped a backhand pass to spring Scheifele for a breakaway chance that he converted to secure a 2-1 victory for the Jets with 9.7 seconds to go in overtime.
While Wheeler was answering a question about what he saw on the play and noting he was expecting Scheifele to spring loose, the Jets center could not help but playfully interject.
“Good anticipation, smart player,” cracked Scheifele.
Lowry understands full well that splitting up two core pieces with this much history together can be a delicate topic to navigate, whether you’ve been coaching the team for eight seasons or carry an interim label as he does.
He felt the time was right to make the move and he also had the conviction to do it.
When things like that happen, it doesn’t just catch the attention of Scheifele and Wheeler, it puts all players on alert.
“We like the make-up. We like the opportunity,” said Lowry, before listing a number of the important attributes Wheeler has brought to the trio with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor, while pointing out Scheifele has played well previously with Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny as well. “I like the balance that both those lines have.”
In a season plagued by inconsistency and far too many nights when one of the top two lines was rolling and the other wasn’t quite clicking at full capacity, this was a calculated risk and one that has paid immediate dividends.
Scheifele and Wheeler still see ample time together on the power play and in overtime, but they can use their respective skillsets to complement others as well.
Sometimes a player can become a bit too connecting on a frequent running mate and a little time apart can help freshen things up for when an eventual reunion happens.
No matter how long Wheeler and Scheifele find themselves on different lines, you have to appreciate both the move that was made and how those players responded.
It’s been a strange season for both Wheeler and Scheifele, one that’s included plenty of pent-up frustration.
It has also included plenty of production and while assessing the level of play for both guys isn’t limited to how many points they put on the board, Wheeler and Scheifele get paid to produce and the rate of return in that area has increased substantially since the NHL All-Star break.
Scheifele came back recharged and he’s put together an impressive stretch that’s included 16 goals and 17 assists for 33 points in 25 games — a hot streak that’s moved him to 26 goals and 62 points in 61 games.
Suddenly he’s back on pace to being a point-per-game player for a sixth consecutive season, something that seemed unlikely during the first half of the season.
Most of the issues Scheifele has encountered have been related to defensive-zone woes, but his engagement level has been on the rise and he’s worked to reduce the costly turnovers that had crept into his game.
As for Wheeler, he’s settled into a groove after missing nine games with a knee injury.
He’s been back long enough to return to full health and he’s playing with a bit more bounce in his step, which has allowed him to get on a roll as well — contributing eight of his 10 goals and 35 of his 52 points during the past 30 games.
Those totals could be even higher had Wheeler enjoyed a bit more puck luck around the net, since he’s generated numerous Grade A scoring chances during the past two games.
“I feel like the only thing we haven’t done in the last two games is finished. We’ve been right there, all over it,” said Wheeler. “We’re just getting the puck to the wrong guy. We’ve got to find the guy with 40 goals so we’ll work on that.”
When Wheeler is delivering self-deprecating humour, you know he’s enjoying himself and that was clearly the case in this instance.
Part of the reason for that is simple.
The NHL trade deadline is in the rearview mirror and the Jets remain in contention.
Yes, the odds are still stacked against them, but they’ve given themselves a chance with 15 games remaining in the regular season.
By going 10-4-1 over the past 15 games, the Jets have pulled within two points of the Vegas Golden Knights in the chase for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference.
“Obviously we want to make the playoffs. That’s our thought,” said Scheifele. “But we know we’re not going to make the playoffs in one game.”
That’s a smart approach to take, especially when you consider how slim the margin for error is for the Jets right now.
The latest opportunity for the Jets to win three consecutive times for the first time since January comes on Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres, capping a stretch of games that included five of six against teams below the playoff line.
The strength of schedule then ramps up considerably, beginning Thursday with a highly-anticipated rematch against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
By stacking up victories, the Jets continue to give themselves reasons for hope.
How they navigate this next week, which includes a home game against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, will provide another critical indicator of whether or not this recent stretch is sustainable or if the runway is simply getting a bit too short for anything but a turbulent landing.