Rather skate than golf
Only a few Jets skipped optional practice in sunny Arizona
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This article was published 03/01/2022 (452 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
GLENDALE — They’re not exactly going streaking just yet, although two wins in a row against top Western Conference teams is nothing to sneeze at. But it appears the Winnipeg Jets are eager for more, given the scene that played out Monday here in Arizona.
Head coach Dave Lowry gave his troops the option of skipping practice on a gorgeous day in the desert — and almost nobody took him up on the offer. In fact, the 13 forwards, seven defencemen and two goaltenders who hit the ice at Gila River Arena did so between 15 and 30 minutes before the scheduled start.
“It did surprise me,” Lowry said of the near-perfect attendance. “The reason is that given the amount of time that we have practiced (six times in seven days last week alone), I thought that guys would take that day and just use it as like a maintenance day, or just a day we did not have to practice. Yes, we were surprised by it, but albeit, we had a good day out there.”
The only ones not present were No. 1 goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, veteran forward Paul Stastny, and injured centre David Gustafsson. Gold stars for everyone from the teacher.
No doubt recent positive results are a factor, and the hope is to try to keep the good times rolling. Winnipeg snapped a three-game winless skid back on Dec, 19, downing the Central Division-leading St. Louis Blues 4-2. After an extended two-week break that included five straight games being postponed due to COVID-19-related reasons, the Jets returned to action Sunday with a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory over the Pacific Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights.
“We’ve got to start collecting some points here and get ourselves in a better playoff position. I think there’s going to be a sense of urgency no matter what,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said of the current state of mind and not being satisfied with the status quo.
Up next is a Tuesday night date with the desert dogs, who occupy the basement of the NHL standings with a 6-21-3 record. However, the 15-11-5 Jets certainly haven’t forgotten one of those Coyotes wins came back on Nov. 29 at Canada Life Centre, with the Jets unable to solve rookie goalie Karel Vejmelka, who stopped all 46 shots he faced in a 1-0 victory. If Winnipeg is going to make a run — they are currently three points below the Western Conference playoff line with 51 regular-season games left — these are the types of opponents that simply can’t be overlooked or taken for granted.
“I think the big thing is we just want to improve our game,” Lowry said. “We’ve talked about starting points in the offensive zone, how we want to defend. Yeah, the last time we played Arizona, we did have a lot of chances, we didn’t get the result that we want. You look at shortcomings in that game and you just want to make sure you prepare yourself to see the opponent again (Tuesday).”
His lineup is going to look slightly different than the one that beat Vegas on Sunday afternoon. Gustafsson suffered a lower-body injury and won’t play, with further evaluation pending on the severity of what ails him.
Options to replace Gustafsson are Evgeny Svechnikov, who has been out since Dec. 17 with an injury but is nearing a return; extra forward C.J. Suess, who was a healthy scratch against the Golden Knights after playing his second-career NHL game against the Blues prior to Christmas; and taxi squad member Cole Perfetti, fresh off his abbreviated World Juniors appearance in which he put up six points in two Team Canada wins to lead the tournament in scoring.
Lowry wouldn’t tip his hand which way he’s leaning.
“We will make lineup decisions after the morning skate. There is a couple variables that we will look at and see where we are personnel-wise,” he said.
Lowry did say he’s likely to keep his top three lines intact, including Kristian Reichel (who scored his first NHL goal Sunday) with Copp and Adam Lowry, and Jansen Harkins (who scored his sixth career NHL goal Sunday) with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor. The top trio of Stastny, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers remains together.
“I think the big thing is, you like to see guys take advantage of opportunities,” Lowry said of Reichel and Harkins.
“That’s what we talk about. That’s what injuries do, they provide guys with opportunities. Both guys have taken advantage of it and they will stay where they are today. The biggest thing is we have to make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves, but the priority for those guys is to be drivers on their lines. It is nice to get that secondary scoring, but that is not something that we will prioritize with them. I want them to be good, hard players to play against.”
Harkins, 24, certainly didn’t look out of place skating with Winnipeg’s top two point-producers and said Monday he’s relishing the chance to play an elevated role.
“Every player wants to make a difference, especially in these games coming down the stretch here,” he said.
“We’re at that point where we have to start taking every game really seriously and trying to get these points down the road here. Adding to that, it’s just kind of stepping up and having different guys step up and chip in. Obviously Reichs with a goal there, me with a goal, we know who our top guys are who have been producing all year for us. It’s important that some of these other guys step up, chip in, and help us win some of these games.”
Lowry said he’d also keep his tweaked defence pairs in place for a second straight game. That means Dylan DeMelo, and not Nate Schmidt, beside Josh Morrissey. Schmidt is now teamed with Logan Stanley, while Neal Pionk and Brenden Dillon remain together as they have all year.
“(Morrissey and DeMelo) they’ve played together, they have a history, they do have some chemistry. They were able to play against McDavid and Draisaitl against Edmonton (in the playoffs last year) and were successful,” said Lowry.
“They do have the ability to play against the other team’s top lines. what we’re trying to do is build some pairs that we’re not necessarily concerned about when we’re on the road and we don’t get that final change, that we don’t have to be really concerned about who’s out (on the ice). We want our pairs to be able to play against anybody and yes we’ll have matchups we do like, but you’re not always going to get them but we’re covered off in that regard.”
Playing on the road is a big factor these days, with the Jets now in the early days of a stretch that will have them playing eight of nine away from Canada Life Centre, barring any additional scheduling snafus.
“I don’t think the message is going to change. I think our focus and how we have to play given that we’re not always going to have the matchups. Some nights we’re going to have harder matchups and we’re going to have to be aware of that. We’re going to have to be committed to it,” said Lowry.
“What we like right now is we like the way our lines are set up and are comfortable that we can play against, any line can play for a shift or two against the other team’s top lines. That’s going to be the mindset and the challenge that we will continue to play with.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Monday, January 3, 2022 7:18 PM CST: Adds photo