LAS VEGAS — Slowly but surely, the Winnipeg Jets are getting closer to icing their ideal lineup.
The club took a big step Saturday night in Las Vegas, as Patrik Laine returned from injury and Adam Lowry returned from suspension. That’s a boost to a group that has been shorthanded for much of the season, yet have still managed to tread water with a 7-7-0 record pending the outcome against the Golden Knights.
"It sucks to kind of put your team at a disadvantage and to have to sit out," Lowry said prior to the puck dropping at T-Mobile Arena. Lowry was forced to be a spectator for the first two games of this road trip — a 7-4 loss in Anaheim and a 3-2 win in San Jose in which they were badly outplayed and outshot — for boarding Calgary’s Oliver Kylington last Saturday at the Heritage Classic in Regina.
The Jets have certainly missed the big shutdown centre, who took his usual spot on a line with Andrew Copp and Jack Roslovic Saturday.
"It’s one of those things where I still have to play hard. I can’t worry about getting suspended again. I can’t worry about (whether) this hit is going to be OK. Things happen real fast and I’ve got to do things with my best judgment and try not to put anyone’s safety in jeopardy. But I have to play hard. That’s an important part of the game," said Lowry, who leads the club in hits, but has yet to record a point this season.
"Maybe I’ll start asking for consent before I hit some people. You know what? No, it’s one of those things where if you start thinking ‘can I hit him or can I not?’ The play is going to pass you by and you’re going to be a pretty ineffective player. It’s one of those things you’ve got to move on from. I’m happy (Kylington) wasn’t hurt. I’m happy that there weren’t any serious consequences from the play and I’m looking forward to turning the page and starting fresh here," he said.
As for Laine, he missed the past two games with a lower-body injury, but was good to go Saturday after testing it out in warm-ups. Laine, who has three goals and 10 assists in his first 12 games, skated on a line with Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers. Little, of course, missed the first nine games of the year with a concussion.
The return of both Lowry and Laine pushed Manitoba Moose call-ups Logan Shaw and C.J. Suess out of the lineup.
Winnipeg’s battered blue line should also get some help next week, with Nathan Beaulieu expected to make his season debut after getting hurt during the final pre-season game.
Suddenly there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the depleted Jets.
It was a curious sight, that’s for sure. Ehlers spent Thursday practising with Winnipeg’s top power-play unit, seemingly getting a promotion. But when the puck dropped Friday night in San Jose, Ehlers was in his familiar spot on the second group.
So what gives? Did head coach Paul Maurice have a change of heart? Not quite. Turns out it was Ehlers himself who balked at playing with the big boys.
"Nikolaj didn’t want to be there. That’s not a negative thing. He would prefer to run downhill on his natural side on the other unit," Maurice said.
That’s a new one. Ehlers led the Jets with seven goals and seven assists through 14 games heading into action Saturday night, with the bulk of his production coming at five-on-five as he gets very limited special-teams time with that second group. You’d think he’d crave a chance to play an even more prominent offensive role.
"To be honest with you, I was putting him on that other unit out of respect — he’s the leading scorer. It’s not what he does really well," Maurice said.
"I kinda said, ‘Hey, we’ll put Nikky there,’ and then the power-play guys talked and Nikky came back and said ‘I prefer to be on the other unit on my natural side, I think I’m more effective there.’ So that’s why I put him back."
Roslovic made the key play to set up Friday’s game-winner in San Jose, a beautiful backhanded pass to Ehlers, who one-timed a shot past Sharks goalie Martin Jones. The tally, with just 1:24 left in the third period, allowed the Jets to sneak out of town with two points despite being outshot 53-19.
Following the contest, Maurice dished out what might best be described as a backhanded compliment.
"Jack Roslovic created that goal, and he needed to, because he was so bad through two and a half," Maurice said, raising plenty of eyebrows in the process.
"But you know what? Good for him. That’s important. Because you play 82 games and you’re going to have a night where you just can’t get it done and it’s not going for you. But he didn’t sulk, he didn’t sit on the bench. He went out, he and Nik Ehlers win us the game, along with our goaltender, after a real, real tough night."
Roslovic took the comments in stride, calling them "constructive criticism."
"I wasn’t too unhappy with my game, going back and looking at it. I always say its never as good as you think it is and never as bad as you think it is. Just try to get better," Roslovic said Saturday.
Maurice said there was no malice intended. Rather, he believes Roslovic took an important step in his development.
"I got a lot more faith in him, there’s a young man that’s going to stay in the game. He’s learned a really valuable lesson here, stay in the game, stay in the fight, because you truly can be the difference-maker," Maurice said.
And that’s a role Roslovic is willing to embrace. He has two goals and four assists through his first 14 games this season.
"I think I’m going to start saying it a little bit more now, but I don’t consider myself to be a young player anymore. And I want to get the respect that I can bring it every night. Obviously, I have to show that. The leash still has to be pretty short on a player like me," he said.
Blake Wheeler’s biggest assist of the season won’t show up on any scoresheet.
The Jets captain was the brains behind a successful goalie-interference challenge on Friday in San Jose, Maurice revealed Saturday. Immediately after Evander Kane scored in the second period to give the home team a 2-1 lead, Wheeler told Maurice he was positive Sharks forward Kevin Labanc had pushed Connor Hellebuyck’s pad with his stick.
"He saw it, and he knew it. He’ll be completely honest with you that that hasn’t always worked out great when he sees it.
"I looked at it once. You get the overhead camera look at it once. He jams the pad. I can’t say from the bench I’m 100 per cent sure we’re getting that one called back, just based on history. But I’m calling that every time," Maurice said.
Turns out, they got this one right. The goal was wiped off the board and the game was still tied — that is, until Wheeler scored on the next shift to actually give the Jets a 2-1 lead.
"He had a big two, three minutes. He was aware of that. That he’s changing the course of the game."
So does Wheeler have a future as a video coach?
"I don’t think so. More of an eye in the sky, perhaps. He makes way too much money to do that, man," Maurice said.
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.
Updated on Saturday, November 2, 2019 at 10:04 PM CDT: Adds photos
1:38 AM: Edited