Nobody is hitting the panic button, at least not publicly. But the Winnipeg Jets better hope their Game 1 playoff lineup against the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night looks a lot different than the one they rolled out Sunday morning for practice.
Four of their top seven forwards did not participate in competitive drills and rushes. Two — Pierre-Luc Dubois and Paul Stastny — were not even on the ice, while Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp largely kept to themselves wearing yellow non-contact jerseys.
If you’re keeping track at home, Ehlers, Dubois and Stastny make up the projected second line behind the top trio of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler. And Copp is the club’s most versatile skater, able to slide into the top six if needed from his usual spot on the checking line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton that should get a heavy dose of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
"I’m just optimistic on all of them, is what I’ll tell you. You guys know I’m a completely open book on injuries all year long. We get to this time of year, you’ll always have some guys in your lineup that are at 99 per cent instead of 100. So we’ll just keep going forward as we’re optimistic that they’re all going to play," is all coach Paul Maurice would offer following the skate at Bell MTS Place.
The Jets will practise again this morning and then get in a final skate on Tuesday before flying west for the first two games. If some, or all, of those banged-up players can’t quickly recover, this best-of-seven series could end up being extremely short. Winnipeg went 2-7-0 against Edmonton this year, including losing the last six meetings in regulation and scoring only seven goals.
Ehlers, 25, missed Winnipeg’s final nine regular-season games with a shoulder injury. He resumed skating about a week ago, and one positive sign on Sunday was the fact he was firing hard wrist shots.
"He’s probably our most prolific five-on-five player. If you look at points and plus-minus, he makes a huge impact. He’s a piece of a real powerful power play unit for us. He has a great impact in our ability to play and generate offence for sure. He looked good out there today, so we’re excited about getting him back. We don’t know when it’s going to be, but he looked good out there today," said Maurice.
Copp sat out Friday night’s game against Toronto with an undisclosed ailment, believed to have been suffered in Tuesday’s tilt against Vancouver. He took a big hit in the second period from Tyler Graovac but finished the game. He didn’t appear to be labouring as he moved around the ice on Sunday.
Stastny and Dubois were both shaken up in the otherwise meaningless affair against the Maple Leafs. Stastny took a cross-check on his first shift of the game from Justin Holl and was in some pain. He missed a few shifts, returned for the rest of the first and second periods, but was ruled out by the final frame. And Dubois was shaken up after taking a shot to the head in the third period of the same contest, going to the dressing room and not returning.
With those four players all questionable, Winnipeg’s lineup isn’t nearly as lethal. On Sunday, the second line was Lowry and Appleton with Mathieu Perreault, the third line was Kristian Vesalainen, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, and the fourth line was Jansen Harkins, Dominic Toninato and Marko Dano.
"(Ehlers) is one of the most dynamic players in the NHL, certainly playing against some dynamic players in Edmonton. He’s a big part of the pulse of our team. He gives us a shot of energy every night, especially in the playoffs where goals are tougher to come by to have a guy that can kind of create offence every shift and make things happen out of nothing. Nikky’s a big part of what we do so we’ve definitely missed him. Whenever that time comes, we look forward to getting him back," said Wheeler.
The news is better on the blue-line, with Tucker Poolman no longer in a non-contact jersey after being held out of the final three regular-season games with an injury. However, he was paired with Ville Heinola, who has been a healthy scratch of late, which suggests he might not be stepping back in right away.
Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo remain on the top pairing, with Neal Pionk and Derek Forbort on the second and Logan Stanley and Jordie Benn on the third.
"Our strength, for sure, is our ability to move the puck quick and efficient. I think we do a good job of breaking the puck out and moving the puck through the neutral zone to our forwards. I think we’ve done a real good job since we’ve been back together here in the later half of the year, doing a really good job of activating in the O-zone and keeping pucks alive but also getting some good looks and walking the blue-line and making good plays in that regard," DeMelo said of partnering with Morrissey.
"It’s always fun playing with Josh. He elevates my game and I feel really comfortable with him. Easy guy to read off. An amazing player in every way. He can kind of do everything, and he does everything for our team. He’s our leader on the back-end. I feel like he elevates my game and it’s fun playing with him whenever I get the chance. I feel like our game right now, individually and collectively, is in a real good spot. So if we stay together I think we’re both looking forward to the challenge ahead."
Be careful what you wish for. They’re likely to get a heavy dose of McDavid, who led the NHL with a ridiculous 105 points in 56 games. He had 22 of those in the nine games against the Jets. Draisaitl finished second with 84 points, 12 coming against Winnipeg.
"Obviously they’re two amazing players. They had just phenomenal seasons. They’re a huge part of the Edmonton Oilers. We’re excited to have the opportunity to go in and try to play our best. I think we’re going to need to bring out best game. We’re focused as a group, as a team, trying to bring out best game," said Morrissey.
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.