WINNIPEG – Jacob Trouba turned 20 on Wednesday, but the Winnipeg Jets defenceman is hoping for a belated birthday gift about six weeks from now.
That present would be a spot in the NHL playoffs to cap off his strong rookie season.
“That’s what we all want. I think we all believe we can do it,” Trouba said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re just going to have to put together a good 22 games here.”
The Jets (28-26-6) play their final 22 games of the regular season in 44 days, beginning Thursday when they host the Phoenix Coyotes (27-21-10).
Winnipeg sits two points back of a wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they’re battling with Minnesota, Dallas, Phoenix, Vancouver and Nashville.
The Jets/Thrashers franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007.
Trouba and fellow rookie centre Mark Schiefele have helped rather than hindered the Jets in this season’s quest and will have a role in getting that playoff spot.
The six-foot-two Trouba, Winnipeg’s first pick (ninth overall) in the 2012 draft, is in a pairing with veteran Mark Stuart. Trouba missed 17 games after injuring his neck in October when he crashed into the boards, but he’s contributed seven goals and 15 assists in 43 games.
Scheifele, 20, is the middleman on the second line between Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane, who’s returning to action Thursday after missing the past six games with a hand infection.
The six-foot-two Scheifele has played all 60 games, collecting 13 goals and adding 21 assists.
Head coach Paul Maurice said he hasn’t seen any nerves from his rookie duo.
“Honestly, from behind that bench, it never crosses my mind on putting a young guy out on the ice,” said Maurice, who took over after Claude Noel was fired Jan. 12. “When Scheifs is going over the boards, I’m thinking, ‘We’ve got a chance to score here.'”
He also likes the enthusiasm he’s seen from Scheifele and Trouba.
“They’re both really into it,” Maurice said. “I’ve always found more young guys over time kind of thought, ‘Well, I’ve got 16 years. You know, I’ve got lots of time for this to turn out to be a good thing.’ And I don’t really get that sense from either of them.
“They’re into practice, they’re trying to get better, they’re having fun. They don’t move around our locker-room—and again I’m not in there all the time—as kids, as outsiders, as guys that are just on the fringe that maybe don’t feel a part.
“I do think, and they should have a really clear understanding of, how important they are right now, today, at their skill level, at their age, to this team and our success.
“They’re in the middle of that room, not on the outside of it at all.”
Scheifele isn’t lacking in motivation to help his team reach the post-season.
“That’s a huge goal for everyone on this team, including me,” said Scheifele, Winnipeg’s first pick (seventh overall) in the 2011 draft.
“That’s why we’re playing this, to make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup. Obviously, it’s a tough thing to do, but I think everyone is here to do that and we just have to continue to have that attitude and work hard at it.”
Maurice is welcoming Kane back to the lineup, a player he says has size, can skate and has “a pretty good offensive instinct with the shot.”
“I want him to play his game in our framework,” said Maurice, who’s 9-3-1 since going behind Winnipeg’s bench.
“So that’s what I’m asking from everybody—just keep the individual things that make you special. Just fly in formation, especially when we don’t have the puck.”
Ondrej Pavelec is expected to start in goal against the Coyotes, but whether he gets the bulk of the work down the stretch remains to be seen.
Maurice said the tandem of Pavelec and backup Al Montoya has given the club consistent goaltending since he arrived.
“We haven’t seen a game of bad goaltending,” he said. “We’ve seen good to spectacular in all their performances.”
But he does hope the team can ride one goalie during the run to the playoffs.
“You hope to,” Maurice said. “You would hope that you would because that means you’ve got a guy rolling.”
Pavelec, who called the stretch run “22 playoff games,” wants to be that guy.
“We’ll see. Every player hopes to play the game,” Pavelec said.
Notes: Winnipeg plays 12 of its final 22 games at home, including nine of its next 12. The Jets record at home this season is 14-11-4…Winnipeg’s 9-3-1 record since Jan. 12 is the NHL’s third-best points percentage (.731) behind Toronto 11-2-1 (.821) and Boston 8-2-2 (.750)…Nine of the Jets’ last 11 games have been decided by a single goal, with their record in those games 6-2-1.