Call it a dry run for a short life without Mark Scheifele.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice went with a lineup Wednesday night against the Calgary Flames that will closely resemble his crew for its 2021-22 NHL regular-season opener in Anaheim in a week’s time.
Winnipeg survived a late scare — receiving positive news from video review — to pin a 3-2 defeat on Calgary that was much tighter on the scoreboard than it felt in reality, before 14,937 spectators at Canada Life Centre.
The Ducks won’t have to worry about Winnipeg’s top centre, Scheifele, one of the league’s most productive shooters the last six seasons. He’ll observe from the Honda Center press box Oct. 13, serving the tail end of a four-game suspension incurred during the playoffs in June.
The visiting Flames didn’t have to contend with him, either, as Scheifele was a healthy scratch for Winnipeg’s second-last pre-season contest.
But their inability to shut down exhilarating winger Nikolaj Ehlers proved to be their undoing.
"When Nikky is playing fast, he’s at his best and shooting the puck kind of coincides with that," said defenceman Josh Morrissey.
"When (he) is doing that, it’s dangerous every time. When you’re watching him, whenever he shoots, especially when he’s in full stride, there’s a chance that it’s going in."
Denmark’s finest hockey export scored twice — the first coming on an end-to-end, highlight-reel dash — and the second on the power play to snap a 2-2 tie midway through the third period.
"Yeah, it’s always nice scoring, whether it’s pre-season or regular season or playoffs, it feels the same. I knew that I would have my chances but I like that they went in (Wednesday) night," said Ehlers.
He actually had three glorious chances down the stretch to complete the hat-trick.
Ehlers handled a long, cross-ice saucer pass from Neal Pionk at full flight and snapped a shot that Flames goalie Dan Vladar squeezed between his pads before peeking behind to make sure. Later, Vladar stopped him cold on a breakaway, and, finally, he missed the open net after Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry both passed up clear shots and fed him at a tough angle, instead.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. But, obviously, I appreciate the effort. I would have also, obviously, liked them to put that puck in the net. But it just shows what kind of guys we’ve got on our team and it feels good," he said.
To join the rush, he had to grab a new stick on the fly from the bench — and the handoff wasn’t exactly executed to perfection.
"I definitely have to work on that in practice. I don’t know. My stick got caught in one of the Calgary players and I just tried to get back as fast as I could and I missed about eight sticks before I got one," Ehlers said. "The rest hit me in the face, so I’ll definitely work on that."
The Flames thought they tied the contest when veteran centre Mikael Backlund, in his 13th season in Calgary, shovelled a loose puck behind goalie Connor Hellebuyck with just 28.8 seconds left and Vladar on the bench. However, the goal was wiped out when video review showed Matthew Tkachuk had knocked the puck down with a high stick just seconds earlier.
"You never know. It was over my head," said Ehlers. "That’s what I thought, but when they don’t call anything, you can’t stop playing. It’s just a matter of trying to battle that puck out. We weren’t able to do that. Fortunately, it was high sticking."
The Jets outshot the Flames 40-13.
Winnipeg is 2-2-1 in the pre-season. The Jets and Flames collide again Friday in Calgary, the last pre-season assignment for each of the Western Conference teams.
Scheifele will definitely suit up for the final test run at Scotiabank Saddledome. He last played Saturday night in Edmonton, and Maurice prefers Winnipeg’s offensive driver not go a two-week stretch without competing.
Scheifele is still paying for a dirty deed done a few months ago in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He demolished Jake Evans in Game 1 of a second-round series with Montreal and was assessed a charging major and game misconduct, while later receiving supplemental discipline from the league’s department of player safety.
A modified first line with Paul Stastny assuming the role of centre between Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, generated plenty of offensive-zone time but couldn’t connect against Calgary.
The Jets used Wheeler, Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry and Pionk on their first power-play unit, which misfired on five chances. Fortunately for the home side, the ‘PP2’ cashed in midway through the final period. New blue-liner Nate Schmidt dished the puck to Ehlers, whose rapid release found space through Vladar’s pads at 9:14 of the final frame.
"I think (the power play is) going to be fine... that’s the first time that those guys were really together. And because of Mark’s suspension, it’s going to look a version of that in Anaheim," said Maurice. "But we will flip back and run the other unit with Mark on it on Friday, just to give him some time.
"Because Nikky scored, he gets to call it the Ehlers unit, that’s how that works. That unit doesn’t look that far off for me. They looked pretty good. Josh was shooting the puck and they had some good chances in there. We are pretty confident where that one is."
Winnipeg opened the scoring when Lowry found Morrissey sliding into the slot and the sixth-year defenceman ripped his second goal of the exhibition slate. Ehlers increased the lead about six minutes later, circling in his own end and then bursting down the left side before unloading a slapshot from the top of the circle that found the top corner.
Hellebuyck had very little work for half the contest but promptly surrendered a pair of goals 1:46 apart by Glenn Gawdin and Andrew Mangiapane as the Flames pulled even in the second period on just their sixth and seventh shots on net.
During the second period, Jets winger Jansen Harkins fell to his knees in the corner and then got knocked into the boards from behind by Blake Coleman. The Stanley Cup winner last season with Tampa Bay was on Winnipeg’s hit list the rest of evening.
"I mean, those are tough now. It was a pretty solid check into the numbers," said Maurice. "We’re fortunate that he’s healthy. You don’t want to see anything happen from behind but then it’s hockey again. Everybody’s healthy, away we go, we’re fine. I’m not going to complain about it."
Harkins picked up his third assist of the pre-season on Morrissey’s goal and played with grit all night.
Young centres David Gustafsson and Cole Perfetti, and defenceman Ville Heinola were healthy scratches for the Jets, while a trio of defencemen, Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg and Nelson Nogier, remain sidelined with lower-body injuries.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).