It was the Michigan Men that were rightfully showered with praise following the Winnipeg Jets 3-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings Thursday night.
Andrew Copp scored twice, Kyle Connor added a goal and an assist and Connor Hellebuyck recorded a 33-save shutout to lead the Jets to victory against a Red Wings club that each player grew up adoring as kids from the surrounding area. That kind of dominance against your hometown team is impossible to ignore.
Also tough to look past on this night was the play of Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm, two young blue liners who were sprung into duty under tough circumstances and played admirably in what was their first taste of the NHL game. Samberg and Chisholm made their big-league debuts as emergency call-ups after COVID-19 rapidly spread through the Jets lineup, forcing several players into quarantine.
While neither would light up the scoresheet — Samberg did help set up Copp’s first goal to record his first NHL point — they both displayed a level of poise beyond their years. One needs to be careful when making any kind of definitive statements given such a small sample size, but as far as first impressions go, both put in an impressive effort that wasn’t lost on their coaches and teammates.
"You only get one chance to make that first impression They all had great first games," Jets head coach Dave Lowry said after practice Saturday. "They did exactly what we expected them to do. They played to their strengths and played to their identity as a player."
He added: "Now, the big thing is taking the momentum and the energy from your first game, how does it translate into your next game? Are you able to bring it, and raise your level to the same bar? That’s the big thing with young guys."
Samberg logged 17:52 of ice time, including 3:51 on the penalty kill, playing alongside fellow Minnesotan Neal Pionk. In fact, the two grew up together in Hermantown, a small city with a population of fewer than 10,000 in St. Louis County, Minn.
"We grew up probably 10 minutes from each other, went to a high school of only about 600 kids and obviously played for the same youth program, same high-school program and same college program," Pionk said. "And to be not only playing together but to be paired together in an NHL game, it was pretty special. I’m sure the whole town watched on Thursday night." "The chances of that are obviously really rare and to come from a small town like Hermantown, it’s a great community, everyone’s always pushing for each other," added Samberg. "I was fortunate enough to have a lot of people reach out from back home and get all that loving and caring for me. That was awesome."
Chisholm ended the night with 13:44 of ice time, and while he didn’t see action on special teams or register his first NHL point, his poise and calmness certainly caught the eye of his teammates. Part of that success, Chisholm said, had to do with playing beside Nate Schmidt, whom he noted was constantly talking to him, making it a comfortable setting to focus on what he does best.
"I went in open minded. I just wanted to have fun with it. Stick to what you know and use my strengths — my skating, my quick puck movement and it was a pleasure to play Schmidty," he said. "He talks a lot out there and I think that’s one of the biggest differences; everyone’s just talking, and it makes it a lot easier to make plays."
Thinking back to his own NHL debut, Pionk recalled nerves and a mindset of just wanting to make the simple play. That’s why he was so impressed by Samberg and Chisholm, both of whom he felt did just that while also feeling confident enough to make what he referred to as "veteran looks."
"For example, later in the game, (Chisholm) grabbed the puck and instead of dumping it in, he carried it in trying to make a play and he did make the play," Pionk said. "Samberg had the puck on the wall, pinned against the wall a couple of times, and instead of just shovelling it out in the neutral zone, he found a pop centre, or he found me on the weak side. It’s little plays like that where you’re not necessarily expecting a guy in their debut to make, but they both made them."
It’s unclear when either will get back into the lineup, but if Saturday’s practice hinted at anything it’s that both could be strong considerations for the Jets’ upcoming four-game road trip, beginning in Washington against the Capitals Tuesday night. A lot could change by then, but Samberg and Chisholm remained on the same defensive pairings as Thursday’s game against the Red Wings.
More likely, the Jets will look to one of Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu or Ville Heinola to fill the void. All three players were back on the ice after exiting the league’s COVID-19 protocol. If Samberg and Chisholm get bumped down the depth chart or return to the Manitoba Moose, there will be a lot to look forward to in the future, knowing they can be relied upon in a pinch.
"The biggest thing for the guys that are playing with the Moose is that they know there is opportunity," Lowry said. "You can’t usually go into a room, say we’re wide open for opportunity here because a lot of times that’s not true. But what these guys see is that when guys are coming up from the Moose, they are getting an opportunity and they are getting minutes to play."
ROSTER UPDATE: Forwards Nikolaj Ehlers and Kristian Vesalainen are officially out of COVID-19 protocol and were back on the ice Saturday. Lowry said Jansen Harkins, who also contracted the coronavirus, didn’t meet border requirements to return home from Detroit but was expected to be back in Winnipeg late Saturday.
Forward Paul Stastny, defenceman Brenden Dillon, goaltender Eric Comrie and goalie coach Wade Flaherty all remain in quarantine since Thursday and could rejoin the team as early as Monday assuming they’re not showing symptoms.
Lowry revealed forwards Evgeny Svechnikov and C.J. Suess are both dealing with upper-body injuries. Svechnikov was the only one to be considered day-to-day, with Suess likely to be out longer.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.