Patrik Laine’s five-goal night wins fan $1 million prize

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Patrik Laine‘s virtuoso five-goal performance inspired a wide array of reactions, at least once people got beyond the general awe.

Some used this as an opportunity to criticize those who doubted Laine, particularly his ability to score at even-strength. Pondering the historical relevance was only natural, and it ended up being logical considering how often Laine matched or approached the work of Wayne Gretzky. Others wonder if this was a true sign that Laine would take the Maurice Richard torch from Alex Ovechkin.

There was likely one person even happier about Laine scoring five goals than Laine himself during Winnipeg’s 8-4 win against the St. Louis Blues.

No, this isn’t about sheer, naive fandom.

Instead, it’s about Laine making money not just for himself, but for a lucky person in Winnipeg. Canadian supermarket chain Safeway runs a “Score & Win” promotion, and a lucky fan, Christopher Haley, hit a $1 million prize thanks to a Jets player scoring five goals.

The fine print details that the winner is slated to receive $50K every year for 20 years.

“Hopefully I made someone pretty happy,” said Laine, who was aware of what his five-goal night did for one lucky fan.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the promotion yielded that big win for a lucky shopper/fan/shopper-fan. In October 2017, a fan won $100K when Logan Couture generated a hat trick, becoming the first person to land a big cash prize.

As you can see from this winners list, most people seem to win $25 gift cards, which are nothing to sneeze at, but certainly aren’t life-changing.

All things considered, this Winnipeg resident has little excuse but to become Laine’s biggest fan beyond blood relatives … and probably a bigger fan that at least some in the Laine clan.

At minimum, some of that winning money should probably go toward a Laine jersey, right?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Gavin McHale’s unforgettable night as Capitals’ backup goalie

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The calls started to pour in around 5 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

Gavin McHale, a former Western Hockey League goaltender whose NHL dream ended a decade ago, was finishing up practice with the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team. The 31-year-old goaltending coach did what most do these days when work is over: he checked his phone.

What was different than other days was a screen littered with roughly 10 missed calls, most of them from Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, and another from a random Pennsylvania number.

Both were calling about the same thing.

A few hours earlier, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby tweaked something in his upper-body during an informal skate at Bell MTS Place. Holtby was slated to start Wednesday night’s game against the Jets, but whatever happened during that brief morning jaunt on the ice turned an expected start into a game-time decision.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirdan spoke with the media at 4:45 p.m. and not a peep was shared about Holtby. But the situation seemed in flux enough that McHale needed to be summoned.

By 5:15 p.m. CT, McHale had caught wind of the situation and was now in his car weaving through traffic to get to from the south end of the city to the Jets’ downtown arena. With the revelation that Holtby would sit due to injury, McHale was set to be signed to an amateur tryout contract and serve as Pheonix Copley’s backup.

“I don’t think I can say those words but (I’m) trying to tell everyone I know that’s close to me and get to the rink as fast as possible,” McHale said of the thoughts racing through his head.

McHale is one of several emergency puckstoppers in Winnipeg. When it’s his turn to be on-call he’ll get to the game with a guest — on Wednesday it was his mom, Val — and eat the press box meal before nestling into his seat to watch among media members and team staffers high above the ice. When the game ends, he exits along with 15,000 others.

Wednesday wasn’t like all the rest.

McHale wasn’t afforded his complimentary pre-game grub. He didn’t sit down next to his mother, either. She was joined by her husband, Ian, in the press box while their son was a few floors below in the visitors’ dressing room suiting up for the game.

“I think every single person in this room introduced themselves to me so it just made me feel a lot more calm and they just kind of let me do my thing,” McHale said. “They had to get ready for a game so it just made me feel really welcomed.”

By 6:40 p.m. CT, McHale, wearing No. 41 in Capitals away threads, stepped onto the ice for his first NHL warmup.

The only shots McHale would see on Wednesday were the ones whizzing by him during warmup, the first courtesy of Alex Ovechkin.

“I was hoping no one saw that,” McHale said afterward.

They did.

It’s hard to miss the 6-foot-7 netminder. But you can forgive him for giving up a few softies as he spelled Copley pre-game.

“Ah, pretty star-struck,” McHale said. “And then star-struck for the next three or four after that until I kind of settled in and the guys said a couple of things to me.”

Crazy enough, it’s not the first time McHale has had to make haste in an emergency role. Heck, it’s not even the first time this year.

On Feb. 16, McHale had to rush down from the press box during the second intermission of Winnipeg’s game against Colorado. Avalanche starter Jonathan Bernier picked up and injury, meaning backup Semyon Varlamov was summoned onto the ice and McHale had to quickly don his goalie garb for the final 20 minutes.

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[ABOUT LAST NIGHT] … “We’ll come get you if we need you.” – @nhljets assistant GM Craig Heisinger on October 4th, 2017, my first game as the Emergency backup. … I looked over at @kbabb9 and we chuckled, knowing that shit would have to go sideways for that to happen. … Since then, every time I’ve been working a game and a goalie gets knocked or nudged or twists the wrong way, my heart stops. … “Will this be the moment I throw an NHL jersey over my head for real?” … Last night was an odd game, the Jets pulling away from the visiting @coloradoavalanche. I even mentioned something to my guest, @c_hodgyyy in the second period when Avs goalie Jonathan Bernier got hit awkwardly. … As the teams skated out for the third period, I noticed the Avalanche had switched their goalie. Totally normal, especially when you’re down 4-0 after two periods. … But Bernier didn’t come out of the tunnel to take his place as backup… GULP. … I turned to watch Jets PR guy Scott Brown walking directly towards me with a smile on his face. … “You’re needed in the Avalanche dressing room. Let’s go.” … I turned to Colin and all I could mustre was “holy fuck” as I stood up and bee-lined it out of the press box. … I put my gear on as fast as I ever have, knowing that I was now one play away from stepping onto the ice in an NHL game. … My heart raced as I slung my equipment onto my body. Then, I realized my childhood dream of slipping a real life @NHL jersey over my head. … It was number 61 and the name bar had been taped over, but I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even get to keep it, but I can now say that I have dressed for an NHL team, albeit for half a period and I wasn’t even allowed to leave the dressing room. … No contract to sign. No fame (except in my small circle of family and friends) and not even a memento from the team. … But the opportunity to be one play away from PLAYING IN THE NHL? I’ll take any amount of proverbial shit in my pants for that. … #grateful #nhl #avalanche #jets #emergencygoalie #theshow #mchalestrength #tarpsoptional

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A little different, eh?

“It was kind of late in the game so it was a little bit of a different experience than getting the whole pregame experience and all that,” McHale said.

Just after 7 p.m. CT, McHale stood for the anthems at the entrance of the visitors’ tunnel across from Washington’s bench. Sporting a Capitals ball cap, he peered on for the next three periods.

At one point, Copley took a puck off the mask, dislodging it.

“I was thinking, ‘Get that thing on as fast as you can,'” McHale said.

Copley did, and he would go on to stop 21 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Jets.

McHale’s name will forever be on an NHL scoresheet. Playing time or not, he had made it to The Show.

“It’s definitely not something I thought would happen in the last 10 years since the career took a downturn,” McHale said. “But it was a pretty exciting experience.”

On Thursday, McHale returned to his coaching gig with a story to tell. He’ll now have some bragging rights, too, for his beer league buddies who play weekly at Bell MTS Iceplex.

“I think the biggest thing is that every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good,” he said. “Just to be a person is a really important piece of what hockey players are. This was a pretty successful team last year, so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL on NBCSN: Laine, Barkov set for spotlight in Finland

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday afternoon’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers at 2 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

For the NHL, the next two days is a chance to showcase their product to a country that sports one of the league’s best talent streams.

For Finland, it’s a rare chance to bask in their homegrown talent. Two teams, each possessing two of the top exports ever produced on the east side of the Gulf of Bothnia, which spills into the Baltic Sea.

Patrik Laine — Suomi’s great sniper.

Aleksander Barkov  — Suomi’s great all-rounder

The Battle of Tampere in the Land of a Thousand Lakes, the home of Darude and Sandstorm.

Both Laine and the Winnipeg Jets and Bakov and the Florida Panthers enter this rendition of the NHL’s Global Series in considerably different places.

Laine has flat out struggled out of the gate. Aside from his three power-play goals and one power-play assist, the ‘Finnisher’ has but one point in five-on-five situations in 12 games this season.

It’s been a tough go for the 20-year-old in his third NHL season. Jets coach Paul Maurice has had to bring out the industrial blender more than once over the past few games. Each press of that blend button has produced a different result. Stints on first, second, third and fourth line have all been tried.

So far, nothing has worked.

Despite this, the Jets have cobbled together a 7-4-1 record with Laine running on less-than-optimal fuel.

[WATCH LIVE – 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Conversely, Barkov has eight points in nine games, picking up right where he left off after last season’s career year. But one wonders if he’d trade in some of those for a couple more wins.

Barkov’s problem isn’t himself, but rather his team. Florida has just two wins to show for in their first nine tries.

Another season has meant another injury for starter Roberto Luongo. His rotten luck has forced Florida into relying on James Reimer and Michael Hutchinson, an endeavor that hasn’t exactly panned out. Both of Luongo’s understudies sport save percentages well below .900 and have mostly failed to perform at even the minimum level required to win.

Florida sits in the middle of the pack in terms of goals-per-game but hovers near the bottom in goals-against. The math isn’t that complicated: score fewer + give up more = lose many. That math has checked out.

Both teams have had several days now to ponder their respective lots in life.

Laine should be salivating at the thought of seeing Reimer and Hutchinson over the next 48 hours. On the golden hockey scale, the guy who can’t seem to score five-on-five should outweigh the goalie who can’t stop pucks.

The pressure on Laine is growing, and he knows the kind of stakes he’s walking into.

“This might be the only time in my life that I’m able to play an NHL game back home,” Laine told the Winnipeg Sun.

Barkov, too.

“We’re just going to play as hard as we can and try to adjust to the atmosphere,” he told NHL.com. “I know it’s going to be really nice to play here and good fans and everything will be different than America, but it’s still really big points for us.”

Both teams are trying to achieve similar outcomes at the end of the day.

In 48 hours, we may be talking about Laine getting his season back on the rails or Florida right back in the thick of things in the Atlantic Division.

Neither is also a possibility, but with two Finns getting a chance to grab bragging rights, it’s likely at least one is in the cards.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

What is wrong with Patrik Laine?

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It’s safe to say that Patrik Laine hasn’t gotten off to the start he would have hope for.

He dropped 15 pounds off his burly frame over the summer in an effort to get a better jump off the starting line. He complained about his slow start in 2017-18 and wanted to rectify that.

He looked trim, was faster and appeared more agile in training camp — primed for a run at a 50-goal season after finishing runner-up to Alex Ovechkin last season with 44.

Now 11 games into Winnipeg’s season, questions about if he can reach that milestone have been replaced with why can’t he manage to score.

Laine’s three goals aren’t exactly conducive to hitting the half-century mark. All three of those goals have come on the power play — Laine’s bread and butter — where four of his five points have originated.

Laine’s undoubtedly lethal on the power play, that’s not in question. Tee him up near the arch of the left circle and the course of magic begins to flow.

It’s five-on-five hockey where worry has crept it. One assist in 11 games and 25 shots and no goals has elevated a certain level of panic in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg’s superstar is neither ‘super’ nor a ‘star’ on the scoresheet thus far, and that’s a problem in a hockey-mad prairie town.

Let’s looks at some of the issues:

LINE SHUFFLING

In Laine’s two years with the Jets, finding his place in the lineup has proved somewhat difficult. While his place on the power play is a lock, his lot in life in five-on-five situations has been anything but.

Laine has played with everyone from Mark Scheifele on the team’s top line to Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux on the team’s fourth this season.

Chemistry between Laine and any two Jets who play with him has been difficult to come by. He found the best iteration of it with the now-departed Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers.

That trio seemed to click when Stastny arrived at the trade deadline in February and stuck together until the Jets were bounced from the playoffs in the Western Conference Final. Laine enjoyed his best window of production with Stastny, but that’s neither here nor there this season.

This year, Laine has played with nearly every forward the Jets have iced on a given night.

• Laine w/ Little, Ehlers – 48.51 CF%, 11 HDCF, 11 HDCA
• Laine w/ Little, Perreault – 62.07 CF%, 6 HDCF, 4 HDCA
• Laine w/ Scheifele, Wheeler – 42.42 CF%, 2 HDCF, 7 HDCA
• Laine w/ Lowry, Tanev – 40.00 CF%, 1 HDCF, 2 HDCA
• Laine w/ Roslovic, Lemieux – 12.50 CF %, 0 HDCF, 1 HDCA

Laine’s played the majority of his minutes this season with Little and Ehlers as the Jets have continued to force them to work together. There’s always been hope the line would eventually work out, but it just hasn’t.

Laine’s best time on the ice 5v5 has been with Little and Perreault, two guys willing to do a lot of the grunt work in all three zones. Given that we’re 11 games into the season, the sample sizes are small, but there’s some promise shown with Little and Perreault.

Perreault is a well-known commodity when it comes to boosting the performance of those around him and Jets coach Paul Maurice has gone to that well already this year trying to get Laine that spark.

It’s a line worth continued exploration. More possession leads to more scoring and Little and Perreault are good at creating it that environment.

“HOCKEY IS REALLY HARD RIGHT NOW”

Laine’s been here before.

Two times last season — the one where he ended up with 44 goals and leading the league in power-play markers — Laine bemoaned a lack of self-confidence.

Both times, Laine bounced back and went on considerable point runs, including a five-game goal scoring streak after his first declaration.

He has yet to put his own game on blast this season.

One thing Laine hasn’t done is sulk about where he’s been playing, either. He didn’t complain about his fourth-line demotion on Saturday and seems to understand the situation he has found himself in to start the year.

“Obviously, everybody knows that I’m not playing well right now,” Laine told the Winnipeg Sun. “That’s the big reason. I started on the fourth line today, I think that was just the result of the way I’ve been playing. Just got to work hard and be able to play the level I used to play and just try to earn those minutes back.”

OVERREACTION?

When Laine (or anyone with bona fide superstar status) isn’t scoring for a period of a time, questions immediately get raised. Words are spilled on to pages, projected over telephone lines and through microphones.

Fans want to know why. They want insight. And, of course, they want a quick resolution.

At this time last year, Laine had five goals and seven points. Two more goals, on more point. He had a couple of lulls last season and still put up 44 goals.

In a couple of weeks’ time, this could all be much ado about nothing.

GOING FORWARD

Laine is forever linked with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews. The latter’s quick start has easily outshone the formers, and in Winnipeg, where Maple Leaf hatred runs high and comparisons abound given their one-two status in the 2016 NHL Draft, that’s cause for the air raid sirens to sound off.

In reality, Laine’s start isn’t much different from last year. Two goals and three points isn’t a wide margin to overcome over the course of 82 games.

I’d also put forth that Laine’s defensive game has taken a slight step forward this year.

He’s a 20-year-old with a wicked amount of pressure on his shoulders. His ‘ice-man’ demeanor may make it look like he’s unfazed, but a goal-scorer who is not scoring goals is a player who is not content with his game.

Teams adapt. Teams are trying to take that lethal shot away. So Laine needs to adapt. It will come.

Maybe this week’s trip home to Finland for two meetings with the Florida Panthers will spark his game. If all else fails, perhaps we could see the return of that gnarly beard.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck