Time is on the Jets’ side

After lengthy break, rested, healthier squad hits road for three-game swing

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Two weeks between games. A four-day holiday break. Seven lengthy practices. Two more days off scattered in between. Yes, these are strange times for the Winnipeg Jets, who've had no shortage of rest and recovery since we last saw them in action way back on Dec. 19.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2021 (335 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Two weeks between games. A four-day holiday break. Seven lengthy practices. Two more days off scattered in between. Yes, these are strange times for the Winnipeg Jets, who’ve had no shortage of rest and recovery since we last saw them in action way back on Dec. 19.

But if you’re into glasses being half-full, silver linings and the power of positive thinking, consider this: The hockey team that is expected to hit the ice on Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas will be in much better shape than the patchwork roster that would have been required had their last five contests not been postponed due to a variety of pandemic-related reasons.

Nate Schmidt has shaken an illness that kept him out of that 4-2 victory over St. Louis. A similar bug that hit Josh Morrissey days later has also passed. David Gustafsson has healed from a minor hurt. Andrew Copp and Kristian Vesalainen both tested positive for COVID-19, entered and exited protocols and won’t miss a minute. Evgeny Svechnikov is closer to a return from injury. Captain Blake Wheeler knocked off two weeks of recovery from a knee ailment. And the organization’s best prospect, Cole Perfetti, is suddenly available if needed due to the abrupt end of the World Juniors.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Evgeny Svechnikov is back on the ice but not yet ready to return to the lineup.

In this case, time really was on Winnipeg’s side as they remain stuck on 30 games played with a 14-11-5 record. And that’s especially true with a new voice behind the bench who has had ample opportunity to try and get his message across.

“I think the biggest thing is the way we’re looking at it, we had an opportunity to practice and to take advantage of the games that had to be postponed or re-scheduled,” interim coach Dave Lowry said following Thursday’s skate at Canada Life Centre.

“We’d like to play. Our plan was, we put together a lineup to play. Unfortunately things changed. And that’s how we’re going to have to plan moving forward. There’s always going to be uncertainty. Yes, it benefits us that we’re going to get a couple players back for our next game. It’s going to work the same way for other teams that are banged up as well.”

Barring any further last-minute surprises, Winnipeg will kick off what is now a three-game road trip when they face Vegas at T-Mobile Arena on Sunday, followed by stops in Arizona on Tuesday and Colorado on Thursday.

Suddenly, the prospect of Jansen Harkins playing on the second line, Kristian Reichel on the third line and CJ. Suess and defenceman Nathan Beaulieu on the fourth line — which is how the Jets were lined up earlier this week without Copp and Vesalainen available — is out the window. Vesalainen likely returns to the second line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor, Copp slides back to the third line with Adam Lowry and Dominic Toninato, Harkins is on the fourth line with some combination of Gustafsson, Reichel and Suess, while Beaulieu goes back to being a healthy scratch as a seventh defenceman.

“Any time you can start re-introducing bodies back into a practice, it means that they’re getting closer to playing. For us, we start taking these guys out of our lineup and you are going to miss them. We’re fortunate that before our next game, we will be getting a couple guys back,” said Lowry.

Both Vesalainen and Copp tested positive on Dec. 21, a few hours after the team’s final skate before the Christmas pause. Vesalainen remained in Winnipeg, meaning he was able to exit protocols on Day 10, which was Thursday, and join his teammates. Copp had already landed in Michigan when he got the news. He isn’t eligible to return to Canada until 14 days have passed since his diagnosis, but he’s now resumed skating in his home state and will join the Jets in Sin City this weekend.

“We’ve been practising. I know we love practicing but what we really love to do is to play. We’re really anxious,” Dubois said Thursday. “We’re watching other teams playing, teams that finished (playing) after us before the Christmas break and are starting five days before us. We love to play hockey and we want to play. Practising is great, but there is nothing like getting out there and competing for 60 minutes.”

Once this upcoming road trip ends, Winnipeg will have another week-long gap in their schedule, the result of two more home dates on Jan. 8 and Jan. 10 being postponed to hopefully allow for increased fan capacity at Canada Life Centre, before heading to Detroit on Jan. 13. That means, of course, even more practice.

“I don’t remember the last time I got to practice (seven) times before I got to play a game. It’s all about focusing on the right things, getting your body ready,” Dubois said of this current phase. “I’m sure the first period in Vegas is going to be different, we’re going to have to work hard, we’re going to have to get our legs going. I’m not sure how many games Vegas will have played before us, but that first period in Vegas is going to be important and then I’m sure in the second and third, we’ll be back to what we expect from ourselves.”

Assuming the scheduled end of the NHL’s regular-season isn’t extended beyond Apr. 29, that game against the Red Wings will be the start of a 106-day sprint to the finish line in which the Jets will play 49 times, once the seven postponed matches are added to the mix. Of course, the hope is Wheeler and Svechnikov will be available to play a lot more of those games than would have been the case if they proceeded as originally planned.

As for Perfetti, he was assigned to the Manitoba Moose on Thursday. The leading scorer from the abbreviated World Juniors — he had six points in two Canadian wins — is certainly a tantalizing option for the Jets going forward, but the return of Copp, Vesalainen and Gustafsson might mean some additional time on the farm playing big minutes is in his short-term future.

The Jets, like all NHL teams, now have the option of building a six-player taxi squad which travels and skates with the team to be available in need of emergency. Right now, only Moose forward Mikey Eyssimont is on it. Expect Winnipeg to add some bodies before they board the charter on Saturday to head to Nevada. Lowry has said he’d rather kids like Perfetti and top blue-line prospect Ville Heinola keep playing big roles in the AHL rather than be parked in hockey purgatory on the taxi squad, so there’s no guarantee he would be added.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.

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