There will be plenty of juicy storylines swirling as the Winnipeg Jets embark on their most important road trip of the season. Players and coaches say they’ll need to block out any distractions and remain focused on the task at hand if they wish to remain relevant in the playoff race.
It all begins tonight in Pittsburgh, where Sidney Crosby will be looking for his 1,000th career point. Next up is Montreal on Saturday, where the Canadiens will be returning from their bye week with new coach Claude Julien at the helm.
After a quick stop in the nation’s capital on Sunday afternoon for a game against the Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg finishes out the road trip in Toronto next Tuesday. Expect a media frenzy, given Patrik Laine is locked in a compelling rookie scoring race with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs.
"We’ve got too much on our plate right now to spend a whole lot of time talking about those things," head coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday before his team departed from Winnipeg.
"I don’t know how many clichés I can fire out in a sentence but one game at a time means everything now."
The Jets snapped a four-game losing streak Tuesday night with a crucial 5-2 win on home ice against the Dallas Stars, led by Laine’s hat trick. They are four points outside the final wild-card playoff spot, currently held by Los Angeles. But the Kings hold four games in hand over the Jets.
Winnipeg will then have its league-mandated bye week once this road trip ends. By the time they return to action at home on Feb. 28 against the Minnesota Wild, they could be looking at a truly dire situation if they don’t collect some points in the coming days.
"It’s getting tight for anybody that’s on the outside. The games are more important. We just don’t have as much time. We’ve been afforded the luxury of playing five or six more games than some of the teams. You’re holding your breath during the break a little bit and hoping for some luck in that," Maurice said.
Winnipeg will be without the services of Andrew Copp, who suffered an upper-body injury in Tuesday night’s game and will not join the team on the road. That will push Chris Thorburn back into the lineup. Defenceman Toby Enstrom is also staying behind in Winnipeg after being injured last weekend. However, injured goalie Ondrej Pavelec and injured forward Marko Dano are travelling with the team. Maurice couldn’t say if either might see action on the trip.
Centre Mark Scheifele, who is now tied for seventh in NHL scoring with 56 points in 56 games, said the importance of Tuesday night’s win can’t be understated.
"Hopefully it’s a good starting point on making a run here," Scheifele said Wednesday. Winnipeg had won three in a row earlier this month before following that up with four straight losses, and Scheifele noted there’s no room for complacency.
"We know we can’t rest on one game. We know we have a tough game against Pittsburgh and we know we have to be on top of our game if we want to beat them," he said.
"We obviously have to make a push. We’ve got some tough opponents coming up. We know we have to be on our A game. For us, we have to take it game by game. We can’t look ahead and look at our bye week coming up. We just have to focus on winning games and getting points and moving up the standings each and every day."
Rookie defenceman Josh Morrissey said he’s looking forward to playing against Crosby — a player he’s idolized for years — for the first time tonight.
"A player like that, for me growing up he was a big star as I was watching on TV. It’s going to be a lot of fun to play him. And going to be a big challenge. But all year that’s something I’ve enjoyed and tried to relish, that challenge of playing against those elite players," Morrissey said.