September 23, 2018

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Chiarot, Morrow D-lighted to play key roles while Enstrom, Kulikov out

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Toby Enstrom (39) will be out of Game 1.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Toby Enstrom (39) will be out of Game 1.

Just imagine, for a moment, that you're Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau trying to come up with a game plan to ground the high-flying Winnipeg Jets. You scan the lineup up and down, looking for a potential weakness your Minnesota Wild squad might be able to exploit.

And there it is, staring you right in the face.

Winnipeg's defensive corps, specifically on the left side of the ice, will not be operating at full strength when the puck drops Wednesday night for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs (6 p.m. at Bell MTS Place). Veterans Toby Enstrom, 33, and Dmitry Kulikov, 27, are both sidelined with injuries, along with their 1,288 combined games of regular-season experience and 462 total points.

In their place will be Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow, with just 348 contests under their belts that have resulted in a grand total of 69 points.

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Just imagine, for a moment, that you're Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau trying to come up with a game plan to ground the high-flying Winnipeg Jets. You scan the lineup up and down, looking for a potential weakness your Minnesota Wild squad might be able to exploit.

And there it is, staring you right in the face.

Winnipeg's defensive corps, specifically on the left side of the ice, will not be operating at full strength when the puck drops Wednesday night for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs (6 p.m. at Bell MTS Place). Veterans Toby Enstrom, 33, and Dmitry Kulikov, 27, are both sidelined with injuries, along with their 1,288 combined games of regular-season experience and 462 total points.

In their place will be Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow, with just 348 contests under their belts that have resulted in a grand total of 69 points.

Of course, it's not the offensive dip that's most concerning for the Jets, but rather how Chiarot and Morrow might hold up defensively against a talented and deep Wild forward group.

Josh Morrissey, the other left-shooting defenceman, will get the toughest assignments along with partner Jacob Trouba. But he can't play all 60 minutes. So Chiarot (paired with Tyler Myers) and Morrow (paired with Dustin Byfuglien) will have to do plenty of heavy lifting if Winnipeg is to escape the first round.

If he's at all concerned, Jets coach Paul Maurice wasn't showing it following his team's final tuneup Tuesday. Enstrom is considered day-to-day with a lingering lower-body injury but did not skate. Kulikov is out longer term with a back injury and hasn't resumed skating.

"(Chiarot) has developed as a defenceman, getting to an identity game. The physical part of his game, he’s a big man that moves well and we saw when he came in. He sat a lot early on and he came back in with maybe a little different perspective about what he was good at, really focused on that physical part of his game, doesn’t take a lot of roughing penalties or things like that but he is a hard, heavy defenceman and he knew that’s what he was good at and that came out in his game," Maurice said.

"Joe has a been a fantastic pickup for us. We wanted a guy who could skate, more than anything else, touch the puck and skate and he’s done that. We’ve needed both of them. They’re playing important minutes now, killing penalties and five-on-five and they play up the lineup so we’ve needed them."

Byfuglien played his strongest hockey of the year when paired with Enstrom — and Maurice said that's why he currently likes Morrow in that spot.

"It would be chemistry with Dustin. Toby is his partner we think he’s the best with. They move the puck differently and they use each other differently. They’re not afraid to control the puck in the defensive zone. Joe has that ability, right, so he’s the closest to Toby’s style and that’s what allows Buff to play his game," he said.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Ben Chiarot (7) during practice at the Iceplex Tuesday.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' Ben Chiarot (7) during practice at the Iceplex Tuesday.

Byfuglien said he's enjoyed getting to know Morrow as they were paired together late in the regular-season.

"He keeps the game pretty simple. If you talk to him a lot, he knows how to read the game very well," Byfuglien said.

Both Chiarot, 26, and Morrow, 25, said they welcome the challenge ahead. Morrow was in the lineup for five playoff games last spring with Boston, the first of his NHL career.

"Mainly I just remember the vast difference in emotion the game brings. It’s what everybody works towards throughout an 82-game season. Once you get down to this part of the year, this is what you play for, this is what you battle for all year. Being athletes and being competitive individuals, I think that’s what comes out at playoff time," said Morrow. "And it’s a whole different game. I don’t think it’s even remotely close to playing a regular-season game. Especially my past experience last year, it was so exciting, so much fun, and every shift had so much emotion. It was just the details that were incredible. I can’t wait to experience it again."

Chiarot, 26, dressed for two playoff games with the Jets in 2015 and said this year's lineup is much deeper in all positions.

"You kind of hear it every year that you’re going to need a lot of D. I think Pittsburgh had like nine or 10 last year when they went on their run. It’s not just D, its forwards, its goalies, we’ve needed a bunch of goalies this year. So you need a lot of guys for a team to be successful," he said. "It’s nice that you’ve been there before, it’s not completely new. So you take a little bit of experience from that, the excitement, what the building was like. So you have an idea of what things are like."

Chiarot said he's also a much different player than he was three seasons ago, when he was still struggling to find his way as something more than a depth player bouncing between the NHL and AHL.

"Over the last couple months, I’ve been getting a little more ice time, getting more confidence from the coaches," said Chiarot. "The coaches have put confidence in me to put me out there, so that changes everything when you’re confident. It changes everything, how you see the game. That’s been a big thing, the coaches just having more trust in me"

As for playing with Myers, essentially the bottom pair for the Jets in minutes, Chiarot sees good things ahead.

"It’s been good. We both move pretty well, both defend similarly. He’s up in the rush, likes to skate with the puck, And I’m more of a defensive guy, I’m usually thinking defence first. He can do his things and I just kind of hold the fort," Chiarot said.

Morrow said he had no expectations when arriving in Winnipeg — but admits to being thrilled at being thrust into a surprising top four role for the start of the playoffs with Byfuglien at his side.

"Yeah, he’s a unique defenceman, a unique player and a unique guy all around. It’s kind of the only way I can describe him. It’s been good so far, been a pleasure. He’s obviously a very skilled individual and he’s been around so long, has a lot of experience. You can learn a couple things from a guy like that," said Morrow. "But so far so good. Hopefully I can read off him a little more. The more I get to play with him the more I get to understand him. That’s kind of how I like to look at things."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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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