Patrik Laine was relaxing at his locker at the Winnipeg Jets practice facility just west of the downtown on Thursday afternoon when teammate Matt Hendricks sidled over.
Holding a white hand towel loaded with shaving cream, Hendricks proceeded – very gently – to rub it into Laine’s face, and the Finnish flash didn’t even utter a word of protest.
“Happy birthday, buddy,” Hendricks proclaimed, and it was difficult to determine through all the foam on his face if Laine appreciated the jocular gesture or not.
It was a waste of good shaving cream as Laine, who sports an Abe Lincoln-styled scraggly beard, obviously hasn’t shaved in ages.
Laine is no longer a teenager, having just turned 20 – and it is almost frightening to consider that his best days as a hockey player are probably ahead of him, considering his gaudy offensive numbers this season.
Laine was asked if leaving his teen years somehow makes him wiser.
“Not at all,” he said. “I don’t think so. I’ve always been wise. It’s not going to just change for the day. I’m still wise. I like it this way.”
What’s not to like? Laine came of age this regular season, erupting for 44 goals. Only Alex Ovechkin, a greybeard at 32, had more in the NHL, with 49.
“I’m happy with my numbers as a teenager,” Laine said. “Now I’m disappointed that it’s over but I’m happy what I was able to do before my 20th birthday. It’s nice to be here.”
Last year, in his rookie campaign, Laine notched 36 goals. He has two more through four games of this playoff series against the Minnesota Wild.
Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice flashed his mathematical skills when asked when he first noticed Laine’s impact on the Jets.
“It would be from the day he stepped into our locker room,” Maurice said. “So he turns 20, he’s got about 82 goals. That’s a real good number. The ability to score from areas that aren’t necessarily scoring areas. It can be deflating, too, for the other team when he beats you from outside, the tops of the circles. And he’s going to get better.
“I really like his games, that line, the compete in their games They’re playing well with the puck in hard areas, smart decisions. I don’t want to put a ceiling on the guy so I don’t want to tell you how important he is to us just yet. I think he’s got a lot of room to get better.”
Laine plays right wing on Winnipeg’s United Nations forward unit with Nikolaj Ehlers, who is a Dane, playing on the left side with Paul Stastny, Quebec-born with family roots in Czechoslovakia, playing down the middle.
The trio had a quiet outing in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, when the Jets defeated the Wild 2-0 to secure a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Jets will try to win their first playoff series in franchise history when they play Game 5 on Friday night at Bell MTS Place.
Laine’s line did not register a point on Tuesday and had just four shots at the Minnesota net. The fact that Winnipeg still won in spite of the quiet output from its top line has to be encouraging.
“Game 3 [a 6-2 Minnesota victory], that was not good from the whole team and that includes our line and including me,” Laine said. “But the last game, I really liked our game as a line and as a team.
“We didn’t give them much and were able to create some chances but couldn’t score so I was satisfied with our game. But we’ve still got to be better.”
Winnipeg will try to do so without solid defender Josh Morrissey. He will sit out a one-game suspension from the NHL for a vicious crosscheck to Minnesota’s Eric Staal on Tuesday.
“I’m disappointed,” Maurice said. “And then you just move on. I’m not holding anything back from you, biting my tongue. I’m not. I was disappointed with the way it went.
“And there wouldn’t be a coach in the NHL who had a guy taken out of his lineup that wouldn’t be. So you just … move on.”
Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau was livid that a penalty was not called on the play, which occurred late in the first period. It could have been a game changer.
It would have given the Wild, who were already on the power play at the time, a two-man advantage in what was still a 0-0 game.
“Whatever the league thought is fine by me,” was Boudreau’s reaction to the suspension. “If they thought he deemed a suspension, then great. The home team always thinks, or the receiving team of that thing, always thinks it should be a whole lot more.
“But I mean, the league does this every night and they usually get it right.”