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EDMONTON — The Winnipeg Jets are furious with Calgary Flames star Matthew Tkachuk, accusing him of deliberately targeting and injuring No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele in Saturday’s 4-1 loss, which kicked off their qualifying round series.
"It was intentional. It was a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg. You can’t see it on the program feed, but take the blue-line feed and you zoom in. He went after the back of the leg. He could have cut his Achilles. He could have ended the man’s career. It’s an absolutely filthy, disgusting hit," Jets coach Paul Maurice said in a post-game tirade at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
"I don’t expect the referees to find that one. That one happens, they wouldn’t be looking at it. You’ve got to look at it after. And it’s grotesque."
Scheifele suffered what appears to be a serious injury just a few minutes into the game, leaving the Jets with a gaping hole in their lineup and a noticeable sag in their play.
Tkachuk, who drilled Scheifele with a bit of a late hit on the opening shift, quickly established himself as Public Enemy No. 1 after another early run-in. Replays showed Tkachuk’s skate appear to make contact with the back of Scheifele’s leg as they got twisted up, with Scheifele crumpling awkwardly to the ice and writhing in pain.
With no fans in the empty arena, media could hear everything being said on the ice, including a discussion about whether Scheifele needed a stretcher and/or ambulance. The Jets were irate, with Maurice screaming "He kicked his (expletive) legs out" to officials on the ice, who called no penalty. Scheifele was eventually helped off, putting no weight on his left leg. He did not return.
Maurice said Scheifele will see a specialist on Sunday but offered up no other details. As for Tkachuk, he told reporters it was all an unfortunate accident.
"I felt terrible from the result of it. He was turning away and I just went in. My left skate had a little bit of the speed wobbles. I was kind of moving and moving probably too fast for myself and was going down. My leg just collided with, it looked it jammed him up. His body was going one way, but the way I hit him, his leg stayed that one way," said Tkachuk.
"I feel terrible. He's a top player in the NHL and somebody I've come to know that past few summers, a couple summers ago training with Gary Roberts. Such a great guy and just a top player in the league. It's not good for the game when somebody like that isn't in the game. It was very unfortunate and unlucky."
Unfortunately for the Jets, losing Scheifele wasn’t the only blow. Sniper Patrik Laine left the game late in the third period suffering an apparent wrist injury. He was slashed by Mark Giordano, which Maurice said wasn’t the cause of the pain, and is also slated to see a specialist on Sunday.
The Jets are no strangers to adversity, having faced plenty already in this most unusual NHL season. Now their long-awaited return-to-play may be a short one if they can’t find a way to overcome yet another series of obstacles suddenly standing in their way.
According to the NHL. 82 per cent of teams that win the opening game of a best-of-five going on to a series victory. And of those 18 per cent who find a way to come back, likely very few of them do so missing one, or possibly two, of their biggest offensive weapons,.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler tried to exact some revenge a couple minutes after Scheifele left the game, dropping the gloves with Tkachuk. He ended up taking a hard right to the face as they tumbled to the ice.
"Arguably your top player, your top offensive player, and logs so many minutes and especially down the middle, such a huge piece of what we do and what we need to do. No matter what, you can’t replicate what he brings to our lineup so we talked before this game, a couple of years ago he had 14 goals in a playoff run, 11 on the road, I mean that’s the type of guy Mark Scheifele is," said Wheeler.
"There’s nobody, well, we did the history and there’s nobody that’s done that ever. That’s a big piece of what we do."
The scrap seemed to briefly ignite Winnipeg, which opened the scoring 31 seconds later. Adam Lowry made a great backhanded, no-look pass from behind the Flames net to find linemate Andrew Copp, who fired a wrist shot past Calgary goaltender Cam Talbot.
Unfortunately for the Jets, that would end up being the lone highlight of the night. The Flames took over the game, peppering Connor Hellebuyck with eight straight shots following an early 7-1 deficit in that department to end the opening frame.
Calgary really poured it on in the second period, outshooting the Jets 18-6 and outscoring them 3-0. First up was Johnny Gaudreau, who showed some slick hands in corralling a loose puck and beating Hellebuyck at 7:06 of the middle frame, with his team on a power play courtesy of a Nathan Beaulieu slashing infraction.
The Flames took their first lead at 12:51, taking advantage of an ugly Jets power play which coughed up the puck in the neutral zone, giving Tobias Rieder a shorthanded breakaway. He made no mistake in scoring what proved to be the game-winner.
With Cody Eakin in the box for interfering with Tkachuk later in the period, Mikael Backlund was left all alone in the slot and took a feed from Andrew Mangiapane, beating Hellebuyck for a 3-1 lead. The Jets looked absolutely lifeless.
Special teams are usually key in playoffs, and the Flames clearly won the battle Saturday. The Jets went a dreadful 0-for-7 with the man advantage, while Calgary went 2-for-4 plus a shorthanded goal.
Mangiapane sealed the victory with an empty-netter late in the third.
Having their backs against the wall is nothing new for Winnipeg. From Dustin Byfuglien’s bombshell retirement on the eve of training camp, Bryan Little’s season-ending injury due to friendly fire from Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton breaking his foot prior to the Heritage Classic while warming up with the pigskin on the field at Mosaic Stadium, Mark Letestu’s life-threatening heart condition to a variety of other unexpected events, the Jets have had numerous challenges this year.
"I think that’s been our calling card all year, being able to handle adversity right from the first day of training camp. If you even want to go back into the summer a little bit. We’ve handled it as well as we can all year in terms of on-ice performance. But we’ve handled it mentally even better I think," said Copp.
"It’s going to be another hurdle for us but like I said we’ve been doing it all year. If we miss any of those guys, it’s going to be a collective effort for sure but we’ve handled circumstances all year and we’re going to rely on that next-man-up mentality and that team play we’re capable of playing."
Speaking of Byfuglien, there’s no question the Jets could have used No. 33 in a game like this. Winnipeg was unable to match Calgary’s physicality on the night, routinely out-muscled by the bigger, stronger Flames who took plenty of runs at the Jets, along with lots of liberties.
They won’t have much time to lick their wounds and try to re-group, with Game 2 set for Monday afternoon and Game 3 early Tuesday evening. Games 4 and 5, if necessary, would be held Thursday and Saturday.
Maurice had to get the line blender out all night in Scheifele’s absence, with Wheeler moving back to centre the top line, Jack Roslovic moving up to the second line, and Mason Appleton bumped up to the third line. None of the combinations provided much in the way of offence.
The Jets ended up with just 17 shots on Talbot, while Hellebuyck was the much busier goaltender facing 31 pucks.
‘We have a game we can play and think we can play well and be a good hockey team when we play it. The positive is we didn’t just come out and get beat 4-1 on our A game. Our power play is a momentum builder for us over the course of the year, and our penalty kill has been since January. Neither of those special teams did what they needed to do for us to win. So the positives are we can be a better hockey team," said Maurice.
Jansen Harkins would be the likely player to draw in for Scheifele, as he actually took the warm-up on Saturday with Nikolaj Ehlers dealing with some type of injury. Ultimately, Ehlers was able to play, and Harkins was scratched. If Laine was also a no-go, Gabriel Bourque is likely the next man up. The Jets also have rookie David Gustafsson, and depth players in Letestu and Logan Shaw on their post-season roster.
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 Sunday, August 2, 2020 at 1:26 AM CDT: Adds quotes from players and Jets coach Paul Maurice.
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