The games have been few and far between lately, with just three over a 24-day span as COVID-19 takes a heavy toll. So it should be an energetic Winnipeg Jets group that hits the ice Thursday night in Detroit, looking to wipe away the bad taste of a lopsided loss that has lingered for a week.
Gentlemen, start your engines in the Motor City. It’s time to start catching up to the rest of the pack, both in terms of the schedule and the standings.
"I’m not worried about our competitive spirit. I’m not worried about the battle level. I like the fact that we’re rested going in and now we know that we’re going to have a stretch where games are going to start stacking up," interim coach Dave Lowry said following Wednesday’s skate at Canada Life Centre.
The Jets (16-12-5) haven’t played since getting clobbered 7-1 by the Colorado Avalanche last Thursday. That snapped a three-game winning streak which dated all the way back to Dec. 19, the last time Winnipeg competed on home ice. They’ll get a four-day break after facing the Red Wings (16-16-5) to prepare for what will really be a three-month sprint to the regular-season finish line, including nine postponed games that are going to have to be made up in February.
"It will be nice to get back into more of that routine of an NHL schedule," defenceman Josh Morrissey said Wednesday of a stretch that has been anything but routine and included no shortage of practices. "No one is going to feel sorry for us out there. We have to be ready to go."
There was some concern about Winnipeg’s ability to ice a full roster, with eight players put in pandemic protocols over the past week. But they got some good news Wednesday when nobody else failed their tests. Defenceman Dylan DeMelo and forward Jansen Harkins, who tested positive in Denver a week ago, are out of their quarantine and met the club in Michigan.
Harkins has been skating for a couple days on his own and will be in the lineup, while DeMelo is a game-time decision based on the fact he had some symptoms and had to spend an extra day in isolation. If he can’t go, 22-year-old Declan Chisholm is on standby to make his NHL debut. The Jets will already be dressing blue-liner Dylan Samberg for his first big-league game.
"I think it’s exciting. Obviously you’d like to have your healthy line-up, but we knew we were going to be presented with this," Lowry said of potentially having both Samberg and Chisholm get their feet wet at the same time.
With Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola all testing positive on Tuesday and being in protocol until at least the weekend, there are no other options at this point to complement the core four of Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon.
"Obviously with COVID and what’s going on in the league, you have to be ready to adapt and adjust your lineup at the last minute. Thankfully we’ve got, I feel, really good depth in the organization on the blue line," said Morrissey, who was paired with Chisholm at practice.
"He moves the puck really well, you can tell he’s a smart player, he’s got a really good shot and a good nose to make offensive plays. It’s a real luxury to have the ability to call up the type of players we can on the blue line when you have injuries or illnesses."
Chisholm, a fifth-round draft pick in 2018, has six goals and eight assists in 27 games with the Moose this year. He had two goals and 11 helpers in 28 AHL games as a rookie last year.
"He’s a real mobile player. He’s active on the offensive line and makes plays quick. He’ll have to be a hard defender," Lowry said.
Forwards Nikolaj Ehlers and Kristian Reichel are the others currently sidelined. That creates a big opportunity for 20-year-old forward Cole Perfetti, who is going to play on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor. Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp is the other top offensive trio, while Adam Lowry, Evgeny Svechnikov and Dominic Toninato are set to start as the third line. Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen (who returned from a minor injury on Wednesday) and C.J. Suess is the likely fourth line.
The Jets are four points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot currently held by San Jose, but have four games in hand on the Sharks. That could ultimately be both a blessing and a curse, given how all these days off will ultimately result in a scheduling crunch.
"I mean, the reality is there is, unfortunately, nothing we can do. That’s kind of been the narrative over the past few years, really. There are a lot of things that are outside of our control as players and, certainly, we’re in a situation where we’re not able to play as many games as some of our teams that we will be playing in the States," said Morrissey.
"If we go out there and play great, you could argue that we’re rested, feeling good and Detroit is coming off a west coast trip, or vice versa, we’re rusty, haven’t played a lot of games. It can go either way. For us, it’s about staying sharp in practice. I feel we’ve had a good week in practice here. We’ve maintained a sharp mental edge in practice, I feel. Those are all things that, again, control what you can control. That’s it right now for the time being."
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.