First some good news for the Winnipeg Jets and their fans: the team returned home from a six-game road trip in better shape than when they left, in terms of their place in the NHL standings.
Winnipeg began the journey six points clear of the Minnesota Wild for second place in the Central Division and the home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs that comes with it. Ten days later, they arrived back in town seven points ahead of the third-place Wild.
With just a dozen regular-season games left on the schedule — eight of them on home ice — it’s looking more and more likely the first two games in Winnipeg’s chase for the Stanley Cup will begin at Bell MTS Place, and the Wild, Colorado Avalanche or Dallas Stars will be their opponent.
Sure, the way the Jets’ longest road trip of the season ended may leave a sour taste in some mouths. A 3-0-0 start was followed by an 0-2-1 end, but the cushion they’ve built themselves allows for a few bumps in the road along the way, so nobody is hitting the panic button on that front.
That brings us to the not-so-good news for the team and their legion of followers: this trip was an unmitigated disaster if you simply look at the body count instead of the final results. They definitely did not come out of it in better shape. Not even close.
Seven players went down with injury over the journey, adding to an already depleted lineup that included key pieces in top-pairing defenceman Jacob Trouba and shutdown centre Adam Lowry.
You can now add No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele, No. 2 centre Paul Stastny, depth centre/winger Matt Hendricks, defencemen Dmitry Kulikov and Toby Enstrom, No. 2 goalie Steve Mason and No. 3 goalie Michael Hutchinson to the list of walking wounded.
With the Jets having an off day Wednesday with no media availability, an update on the status of the players won’t come until this morning at the earliest.
"We’ve dealt with a lot of things throughout the years, and injuries have been one of our big things," veteran defenceman Dustin Byfuglien said following Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. "It’s never easy to continue doing what we’ve been doing with that many guys out of the lineup."
It’s believed that Scheifele, Trouba, Lowry and Enstrom are close to returning. In fact, Trouba could be in the lineup when Winnipeg kicks off a six-game homestand tonight against Chicago.
The status of Stastny and Hutchinson is unknown, given that they both went down Tuesday night in Washington. Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Stastny had something "tighten up" during the pre-game warm-up, while Hutchinson "wasn’t right" after leaving the game midway through the first period, but wasn’t immediately diagnosed with a concussion.
Eric Comrie was called up Wednesday from the Manitoba Moose, which means Hutchinson won’t be available for the short term.
Mason had a knee scope last weekend and is out two to three weeks at minimum. Kulikov is getting multiple opinions on an undisclosed upper-body injury, which doesn’t sound encouraging for his short-term prognosis, especially since he had major back issues last season. Nothing has been disclosed about Hendricks’ ailment.
The fact the Jets are somewhat entrenched in that second-place spot might buy them some time in terms of not rushing players back. And it’s hard to say how many of the injured players would be good to go if the playoffs started tomorrow. Our best guess is most would be in the lineup.
"If we look back to this road trip and overall, 3-2-1, seven points, it’s not horrible," forward Mathieu Perreault said following the Predators game. "We can deal with that. Especially with the injuries we’re dealing with."
Captain Blake Wheeler said these final three-and-a-half weeks of the regular season, with just four road games remaining, will hopefully get the Jets primed for a playoff run.
"We’re in a good spot. We gotta get healthy. The guys that have been playing here are all pretty beat up and pretty exhausted," he said Tuesday night. "We gotta get some bodies back, get some home cooking, get in front of our building again."
Players and the coaching staff were in a positive frame of mind at the conclusion of the trip, despite spotting Nashville three early goals. They liked how the team battled back to make a game of it, rather than just fold the tent. While the Predators are now likely too far ahead to catch for first place with an eight-point lead over the Jets, that isn’t the main priority right now.
"Six games on the road. Finishing heavy and hard. We played right," said Maurice. "After a loss you’re not feeling too excited, but I like how we’re playing right now and competing. We got to a point on this trip where execution started to get away from us a little bit. Things weren’t easy moving the puck, but we’re all right. We’re banged up, but we’re all right."
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.