MINSK, Belarus – Before Mark Scheifele got injured in early March, the Winnipeg Jets sat one point out of a playoff spot. A sprained right knee derailed any hope of making a run.
Now Scheifele is healthy, and Team Canada heads into the playoff round at the world hockey championship with legitimate medal aspirations thanks in part to his progression.
“Every game he’s got better and better,” coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s been good in the faceoff dot, puck control. … We’re going to need everybody to be a good team in the quarter-final, and Scheif, his game has improved every game we played.”
Scheifele assisted on Ryan Ellis’s overtime winner against Sweden, scored against Norway and is making use of his increased ice time. Along with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri and the Calgary Flames’ Sean Monahan, the 21-year-old Jets centre is making big strides in Minsk.
“You just gain experience,” Scheifele said. “You play against different kinds of hockey. It’s just kind of a matter of learning how to adapt to who you’re playing against, what kind of competition you’re coming against. Obviously just playing with and against the best players in the world helps.”
Each game is a new test for the young Canadian team, but Scheifele’s journey to the world championships showed Paul Maurice something. Maurice, his coach in Winnipeg and an assistant to Tippett at this tournament, was impressed by how hard Scheifele worked to recover from a sprained MCL to be ready.
At first, the coaching staff saw a player who hadn’t experienced game action in more than two months. Then Maurice saw the player who was so vital to the Jets when healthy.
“He’s responded like Mark does: He just got better,” Maurice said. “He didn’t play a lot in the (first) few games and kept working hard in practice and he’d get his handful of shifts one night and show you something in each shift. Dave Tippett is really strong at recognizing that in players during games, so he’s gotten more and more opportunity.”
Scheifele, who is expected to again centre the fourth line in Thursday’s quarter-final game against Finland, had a leg up on Monahan going in because he had a little more experience. But he wasn’t quite himself.
That made Scheifele the 13th forward and his ice time dropped. The Kitchener, Ont., native played just 2:20 in the second game against Slovakia and then 2:34 the next one against the Czech Republic.
A leg injury to Alex Burrows — who practised Wednesday and is set to return against Finland after a two-game absence — gave Scheifele another chance. His patience set up arguably Canada’s biggest goal of the tournament, and he scored another to help ensure first place in the group.
“I think every game I kind of get a little more ice, a little more comfortable,” Scheifele said. “Every game, just getting my legs under me, and that’s the biggest thing. I feel more comfortable every game, and I just got to continue that.”
The tests are just beginning for the world championship rookies, including 20-year-old Flames prospect Johnny Gaudreau, whose U.S. team faces the Czech Republic on Thursday for the right to face the winner of Canada-Finland.
“Playing with NHL players and playing against NHL players obviously will help me in my game and help me develop as a player,” Gaudreau said. “Playing college the last three years I felt this would be the best opportunity to help me become a better pro.”
Olli Jokinen, a teammate of Scheifele’s with the Jets and captain of Finland, agrees wholeheartedly.
“Everybody’s goal is to make the playoffs and have a long run. At the same time with the younger players coming here, I think for them understanding the games like this. It’s like a Game 7 in the playoffs,” Jokinen said. “Having experience like that, it’s going to help you to get even better. And at the same time, for the younger guys, it’s an eye-opener, probably, too, how tough this tournament actually is.”
Tippett likes that his younger players get an opportunity to play in “real competitive, playoff-style games.” Rielly considers it beneficial to work with three different coaches he didn’t know before and thinks that it’ll help him learn quicker in the future.
“You get a chance to kind of learn new breakouts, new power-play things,” the 20-year-old Leafs defenceman said. “I think if you’re trying to keep learning like that, that’s always helpful. I think I’ll be able to carry that back to Toronto with me.”
Scheifele and Maurice will be able to carry something back to Winnipeg, as well. The tournament is just another chance for the coach who signed a four-year deal and the Jets’ franchise forward to get better accustomed to each other after just half a season together.
Maurice said he’s still learning about Scheifele, but he has a lot to be proud of over the past couple of months.
“What I really like is how he’s handled the adversity of the injury,” Maurice said. “When something doesn’t go his way, he doesn’t quit. He digs in and works harder and competes and then I also recognize that this is a learning experience for him. Over the course of his career he’s going to have some adversity.
“The question is how do you learn to handle it, and he’s learned to handle it here with some pretty high-level hockey where he wasn’t handed ice time and he fought his way through it and became a real important part of the team here.”
According to Jokinen, Scheifele followed the same path in his first full NHL season as he has at the world championships. As a result, he has a chance to be a major contributor for Canada now that every game is an elimination game.
“It took him a little bit of time to get used to it,” Jokinen said. “But once he started feeling comfortable, he was really good for us. He’s a highly skilled player, he can be the difference-maker every time when he steps on the ice.”
NOTES — Tippett would not reveal which goaltender, Ben Scrivens or James Reimer, would start Thursday against Finland, which has no such dilemma thanks to the presence of a healthy Pekka Rinne. … Defenceman Tyler Myers missed Wednesday’s practice because of the flu bug that’s going around the team. Tippett expects him to be OK to play in the quarter-finals.
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© The Canadian Press, 2014