The Winnipeg Jets would love to have Dustin Byfuglien back in their lineup for Thursday’s game against the visiting New York Islanders, but with the post-season just around the corner caution will prevail.
The veteran defenceman, who turned 34 Wednesday, has missed 39 games in 2018-19, including the last 18 since he suffered an ankle injury.
Byfuglien practised Wednesday morning without limitations for the first time since being injured Feb. 14.
"He was good," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "We had some two-on-two work and three-on-three work, which provides some contact and some tight turning and he looks the way he normally would. He didn’t look any different.
"So, we’ll take a look and see how he’s feeling (Thursday). I don’t have him in the lineup for (Thursday) night. We’ll get another good one (practice) in the next day and see where he’s at."
Byfuglien, who has played in only 37 games this season, scoring four goals and adding 26 assists for 30 points, was asked for a status report.
"Feeling good," he told reporters. "Just going to continue getting on the ice and be ready for when they call."
With the Jets down to their final six regular-season games, did he know when he’d be back?
"Hopefully sooner than later," said Byfuglien. "Just got taken out of yellow (no-contact jersey), so just take it day by day now."
The Jets (45-27-5) play the third of four consecutive games at Bell MTS Place on Thursday night, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. Winnipeg leads the Central Division and has a two-point edge and a game in hand on the Nashville Predators, who travel to Pittsburgh to battle the Penguins on Friday night.
Winnipeg is coming off a flat performance Monday in a 5-2 defeat to the Dallas Stars. Kyle Connor scored his 33rd goal of the season, while Patrik Laine halted a 12-game scoring drought with his 30th.
Byfuglien missed 15 games early in 2019 with a similar injury, returned for five games, before going down again. The extra care this time is intended to avoid a repeat of the situation.
"This one I think I’m going in a lot more safe, completely healed and ready to go," said Byfuglien.
With Byfuglien getting close to a return, Maurice was asked if he had considered who he would pair Byfuglien with when he finally does return to active duty.
"Yeah, but before I would announce that, I would be announcing a guy that’s coming out of the lineup that is playing tomorrow night and he wouldn’t want to hear that," joked Maurice. "So, we’ll just hang onto it. Especially if he gets a hat trick. Then we’ll have to change up our thinking a bit."
NOTEWORTHY: no. 2 goaltender Laurent Brossoit (lower-body injury) skated prior to practice with injured blue-liner Josh Morrissey (upper body). Brossoit will not dress Thursday, meaning emergency Manitoba Moose call-up Eric Comrie remains with the club.
Morrissey, meanwhile, is expected to return to active duty next month.
SCARY ISLES: the Jets face a talented and determined Islanders squad Thursday and their turnaround has generated plenty of coach-of-the-year buzz for head coach Barry Trotz.
"He’s had a phenomenal track record and it (started) in Nashville, about getting them to play a really defined game," said Maurice. "His next two teams that he took over, he brought that game into Washington and in some ways, had to fight harder to get that style of player to play that game. But he did.
"And then he went into a team that was looking for and needed that. They were at the opposite end of that spectrum and he’s done a really good job of getting them to play a hard, solid defensive game and giving their goaltenders a chance to be elite and now their numbers say that they are. So they are a tough, tough opponent."
HE SAID IT: Byfuglien on how he would celebrate his 34th birthday. "Probably the same as I’ve been doing the last couple of months; just hanging out at home and doing nothing," he said.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.