WINNIPEG – Earlier in the day, Nikolaj Ehlers was on the receiving end of one of those famous chirps from his buddy and even though the tongue of Patrik Laine may have been firmly planted in his cheek, he did ultimately heed that friendly advice about keeping his head up.
And by the time the dust had settled, it was Ehlers who ended up having the last laugh.
On a night when so much of the hype and attention was on Laine suiting up for his first game against his former team in front of a fan base he absolutely adored, it was Ehlers that took center stage with the game on the line.
As Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry rolled out three highly skilled forwards as the three-on-three overtime and went on the offensive, there was Ehlers scooping up a pass from Kyle Connor, looking over his shoulder on two separate occasions to see how much room he had with Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski in hot pursuit.
By the time Ehlers had been able to determine that his nearest pursuer would not be able to catch him, he focused on what he planned to do when he got in tight on Elivs Merzlikins, ultimately deciding to fire a quick shot through the wickets just 21 seconds into the three-on-three overtime.
“I like the five hole,” said Ehlers, who secured a sixth consecutive 20-goal season in Friday’s 4-3 triumph. “I did a couple shoulder checks there. I just didn’t want to come in with too much speed, and that’s why I kind of let up there a little bit. That’s why I was checking to see where he was at.”
There have been times when breakaways have been the equivalent of kryptonite for Ehlers, but on a night where the Jets were looking to regroup after a lacklustre 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators just one night earlier, he was able to deliver a dagger.
That Ehlers was able to steal the thunder from his close friend should not come as a surprise, as he’s a game-breaker in his own right.
Since returning from a knee injury that cost him nearly a quarter of the season (19 games for those of you looking to be exact or scoring at home), Ehlers has been a driving force for a Jets offense that has been explosive.
He’s generating scoring chances for himself and his linemates at an extremely high rate and his production has matched the rate.
With seven goals and five assists for 12 points in 12 games since returning to the lineup, Ehlers looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.
His explosiveness and ability to back off defenders has been on full display, whether he was playing alongside Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois or with Mark Scheifele and Paul Stastny, as he was on Friday night.
Ehlers also delivered a bit of levity of his own, lovingly slashing the stick of Laine while lining up opposite him on the wing during a defensive zone draw.
“I don’t know. That was the first time I was on the ice against Patty, on the other side,” said Ehlers. “I’ve played with him… We’ve honestly pretty much played every single game together during the time that he was here. So it was a little different, it was fun, we won the game so that’s great.”
The Jets did an excellent job of preventing Laine from finding the scoresheet, limiting the Finnish sniper to four shots on goal and seven shot attempts.
But that didn’t mean Laine wasn’t dangerous, even if he was showing some signs of the nerves he admitted to having during his session with reporters on Friday morning.
He unloaded a couple of one-timers and then got a great look late in the contest that was turned aside.
“Scary, for sure. I mean, obviously, when he gets a little time and space anywhere in the slot, you want to try to get there as fast as possible to take it away from him because we’ve always seen that for years,” said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey. “It’s always weird playing against former teammates for the first time. But you definitely have to respect their ability and (Jack Roslovic’s) speed and quickness and (Laine’s) ability to score and beat you one-on-one.
“I got (Laine) a few times with the stick checks and he faked me a couple times. It was what we did for years in practice, so it was fun to do that and play against him. But certainly like I said, you have a lot of respect for their games and their ability.”
Morrissey played a huge role in limiting Laine’s effectiveness and he also scored an important power-play goal that gave the Jets a 2-0 lead.
But with just 19.4 seconds to go in regulation time and the Jets protecting a one-goal lead, Morrissey received a slashing minor that took an empty-net goal from Blake Wheeler off the board.
Instead of putting the game on ice, the Jets faced a two-man disadvantage after the Blue Jackets pulled their goalie in favor of an extra attacker and needed only five strikes for Oliver Bjorkstrand to strike, sending the game to overtime.
While it should be noted that Blue Jackets Sean Kuraly pushed Morrissey into the boards initially and appeared to embellish the severity of the stick contact when the Jets defenseman retaliated just before the puck went into the empty net, it was Morrissey who showed incredible accountability when discussing the play in question.
“At the end of the day, emotions are high, it’s the last minute of the game,” said Morrissey, who is up to a career-best total of 11 in the goal category. “Obviously we’re battling. I didn’t like the hit (by Kuraly). But at the end of the day, I’ve got to control my emotions there and not put my team down and take the goal off the board. That’s why you have your teammates to pick you up when you make mistakes. That was a play I’d like to have back, for sure. But we found a way in OT, and the guy beside me saved my butt.”
Morrissey endured the feeling of loneliness that accompanies sitting in the penalty box when the game is on the line.
“When that happens, I feel like the smallest guy in the arena. And rightfully so,” said Morrissey. “(The referee) thought I slashed him, which I did. And he thought I did it before the goal went in. That’s really the only…I didn’t like the hit either, but as I said, I slashed him, what am I going to say. It’s a penalty.”
This was a true example of leadership.
It would have been easy for Morrissey to say it was a soft call (which it was) or that his opponent took a dive (which is what it looked like), but instead, he pointed the finger at himself and said he needed to park his frustration in that situation rather than force his team to play shorthanded in the waning seconds of regulation time.
“That shows you the type of person he is and the leadership he provides,” said Lowry, whose team improves to 31-25-10 and temporarily pulls within three points of the Dallas Stars, who hold three games in hand. “He owns that moment and that just shows the type of character and the player that he is.”
Jets backup goalie Eric Comrie continued his stretch of solid play this season, making 33 saves as he won a fifth consecutive start and improved to 8-2-1 overall.
Those early-season questions about whether or not Comrie was ready to handle the job at the NHL level seem like nothing but a distant memory.
“That guy works his ass off,” said Ehlers. “Yeah, he doesn’t play a lot, but when he does, he plays fantastic. We’ve got two goalies that give us a chance to win. When you’ve got a guy like (Comrie) who, every practice, he goes out there, 20, 30 minutes before and stays to do whatever extra guys want to do, stays out for that as well, he deserves it.
“He’s a great guy off the ice, and we love him in the room. It’s awesome to see how well he’s doing, and we obviously love that. We have two goalies that are fantastic, and that’s great.”