SOCHI, Russia – Some people view 13 as an unlucky number. Fortunately for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, Blake Wheeler is not among them.
Even though he has been penciled in as the 13th forward on the U.S. line chart, Wheeler has made the most of his opportunities, no matter how scarce they may be.
In Saturday night’s preliminary round win against Russia, the Robbinsdale, Minn., native touched the ice one time in the first period and was whistled for a tripping penalty. That turned out to be the end of his night as head coach Dan Bylsma rolled his regular four lines the rest of the way.
Rather than sulk at the end of the bench, Wheeler became the team’s biggest cheerleader through a nip and tuck battle that ended after eight rounds of a shootout on T.J. Oshie’s fourth goal.
“It’s not about me, and it’s not about one guy. I was just happy we were able to pull it out,” said the Winnipeg Jets forward.
“That was one of those atmospheres that you’ll probably never forget. Just to be a part of it was a huge thrill.”
Sunday’s game against Slovenia was a different story. Wheeler was added to the line of Oshie and Paul Stastny, and he certainly didn’t disappoint, particularly during several shifts in the second period that ultimately turned the tide as the U.S. would go on to a 5-1 victory over a resilient Slovenian team.
“It was a great opportunity to get a little more ice time out there,” Wheeler said after picking up his first Olympic point. “Playing with guys like [Oshie and Stastny] makes your job pretty easy. I was just trying to have fun out there and enjoy the moment and try to bring as much energy as I could.”
He did just that midway through the second period. Despite jumping out to an early lead on a pair of goals by Phil Kessel, the U.S. found itself back on its heels as the Slovenians turned up the heat as they looked to slip one past U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller. It took a monster shift from Wheeler to tilt the ice the other way.
Cycling the puck down low by using their speed and strength, the Americans looked as if they were on the power play as the Slovenians collapsed down around 20-year-old goaltender Luka Gracnar in hopes of weathering the storm.
Moments later, Joe Pavelski’s point shot found its way through a screen and the rebound popped out to Kessel, who completed the natural hat trick.
“The line of Oshie, Stastny and Wheeler, with that shift in the second period, really set the tone,” Bylsma said. “I thought that was maybe our best point in the game, and we were better after that.”
On his next shift Wheeler was at it again, picking up the puck and skating full circle around the offensive zone before curling in the corner and firing a perfect cross-ice pass to Ryan McDonagh, whose one-timer padded the U.S. lead to 4-0.
While much of the attention was focused on Kessel and his natural hat trick, Bylsma was particularly impressed with Wheeler, who provided a spark when his team needed it the most.
“Blake flashed his brilliance in that particular shift, which was our best shift of the game,” Bylsma said. “We’ve talked about getting the big train going, and it certainly was the case tonight.
“It was a strong game by him and a great opportunity to be able to display his strength, size, speed and skill. It’s something that we have throughout our lineup, and something we will need going forward.”