Mark Scheifele experienced last season’s NHL playoffs from his couch.
Some 12 months later, the Jets centre is one of the star attractions.
Scheifele leads the post-season goal race with a gaudy 12 in 13 games, setting a new NHL record with seven on the road in a single series in Winnipeg’s hard-fought victory against the Nashville Predators in the second round.
He then added another at home on Saturday in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights to open the Western Conference final.
“It’s fun watching big-time players play in big games,” Scheifele said of sitting at home last spring.
Now he’s the one that has people turning their heads.
The 24-year-old Scheifele and linemate Blake Wheeler entered Sunday tied with 18 points to top the list of players still active in the post-season, while his other winger – rookie Kyle Connor – has two goals and six assists.
“It’s just unreal,” Jets centre Bryan Little said of Scheifele’s contribution. “He’s done everything you could ask of him.”
That includes going up against the opposition’s No. 1 line, producing on the power plays and killing penalties.
“Honestly with Mark, you’re never really surprised with what he’s able to do,” said Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey, who’s also having an outstanding playoffs. “He works so hard on his game. He has such high aspirations for where he wants to get to. He’s never satisfied.
“He’s just been able to constantly go to another level. The bigger the game, the better he plays.”
But that ascension didn’t happen overnight.
Like his team, it was a slow process that required patience.
Selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft – Winnipeg’s first pick after moving from Atlanta – Scheifele was twice sent back to junior before finally sticking in 2013-14.
His offensive numbers increased steadily year after year, culminating with 32 goals and 50 assists in 79 games last season, but the Jets missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
“You always expect a lot out of yourself, you want strive for the best,” Scheifele said. “That’s what I try to do every day, do whatever it takes to get better at this game, do better for my team.”
The Kitchener, Ont., native was poised to match or exceed his totals from 2016-17 this year, but missed a large chunk of the season because of injury before finishing with 23 goals and 37 assists for 60 points in 60 games.
“You try to get better every game,” Scheifele said. “You try to get better everyday. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s an ongoing process, the game of hockey.
“You always have to get better, you always have to strive for more.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said that desire to break through barriers was evident as soon as he got to Winnipeg.
“You’re always aware players can kind of flatline at a certain level,” Maurice said. “But very early, you at least with confidence could say he’s going to maximize his game. He will get to as good as he can be.”
“Every year he’s made huge leaps and bounds,” Morrissey added. “Not surprised at all with his success in the playoffs.”
As for the series with Vegas, Scheifele and the Jets expect a response in Game 2 after the visitors were disappointed with their start in the opener.
The Jets had less than 48 hours to prepare following a victory over Nashville in Game 7 on the road, while the Knights were off for five days after beating the San Jose Sharks in six.
None of that mattered, however, as Winnipeg jumped out to a 3-0 lead eight minutes into the first period and never looked back.
“We knew it was going to be hard,” said Vegas winger William Karlsson, who scored his team-leading fifth goal of the post-season in Game 1. “We have to move on and prepare for the next one and build on the good things we did.”
Speaking of preparation, that’s one of the main reasons Scheifele has soared.
“He’s not going to look back at his career and say, ‘Boy, I could have been a way better player if only I had worked out harder, studied the game more,“’ Maurice said. “We know that when he’s done you’ll have seen the best.”