August 23, 2019

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Suddenly healthy D-corps means press box loaded with Jets blue-liners

Joe Morrow will be one of four Jets defencemen watching the game from the press box when the playoffs start Wednesday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Joe Morrow will be one of four Jets defencemen watching the game from the press box when the playoffs start Wednesday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

He was the Game 1 hero a year ago, scoring the biggest goal of his career to give the Winnipeg Jets a first-ever franchise playoff victory.

But as a new playoff season began Wednesday night, Joe Morrow wasn't on the team's blue line. Instead, the 26-year-old well-travelled journeyman was in the press box, a healthy scratch forced to watch from the sidelines as 20 teammates begin their quest for a Stanley Cup.

“They’re tough when you’re taking out a player that you can honestly say didn’t leave anything on the table. I’m not saying, ‘Geez, your last five games weren’t very good’ or, ‘You’re not giving what you have to give’ or, ‘You’re way off your game,’ so it’s an easy out. You like these players," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said of the lineup decisions he's had to make.

What a difference a year makes. With Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey both ready to go, Maurice now has every defenceman at his disposal. That wasn't the case last season, when Dmitry Kulikov and Toby Enstrom were both unable to play Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild.

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He was the Game 1 hero a year ago, scoring the biggest goal of his career to give the Winnipeg Jets a first-ever franchise playoff victory.

But as a new playoff season began Wednesday night, Joe Morrow wasn't on the team's blue line. Instead, the 26-year-old well-travelled journeyman was in the press box, a healthy scratch forced to watch from the sidelines as 20 teammates begin their quest for a Stanley Cup.

"They’re tough when you’re taking out a player that you can honestly say didn’t leave anything on the table. I’m not saying, ‘Geez, your last five games weren’t very good’ or, ‘You’re not giving what you have to give’ or, ‘You’re way off your game,’ so it’s an easy out. You like these players," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said of the lineup decisions he's had to make.

What a difference a year makes. With Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey both ready to go, Maurice now has every defenceman at his disposal. That wasn't the case last season, when Dmitry Kulikov and Toby Enstrom were both unable to play Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild.

Enter Morrow, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Montreal Canadiens and scored the game-winner in the third period against the Wild in a tight, tense game.

That's the beauty of playoffs, where unsung heroes can emerge.

"You can go the whole season and score four goals and nobody knows who you are," Maurice said. "But you score one or two (in the playoffs) and they’ll remember you for a long time. So everybody’s a shooter. I think the hockey gets so intense, you don’t see people overplaying the puck now. You’ve got a shot lane, it goes to the net because you see it go in that way. And one goal matters now."

Of course, Morrow won't get the chance to repeat history this post-season against the St. Louis Blues. At least not right now.

"We’ve got depth there. In any series, and I’m not talking anything beyond the first series, you almost always seem to need to call on it," Maurice said. "So we have players there that at least when they pop in, they’ll usually go into a pairing that they’ve spent time with and it can certainly assist them in a game."

Indeed, the Jets used nine defencemen as they went three rounds deep in the playoffs last season, so things can change in a hurry. Being ready to play is a key.

Sami Niku played some games with the Jets when they needed him, but with a healty defensive roster, he's a healthy scratch. (Chris O'Meara / The Associated Press files)</p>

Sami Niku played some games with the Jets when they needed him, but with a healty defensive roster, he's a healthy scratch. (Chris O'Meara / The Associated Press files)

Morrow wasn't available to take a trip down memory lane Wednesday, as he and the other scratches were being bag-skated long after the starters were off the ice and done their media availability following the morning skate.

Joining Morrow was Nathan Beaulieu, another trade-deadline acquisition who helped solidify Winnipeg's back end over the last six weeks with Byfuglien and Morrissey nursing injuries. He stepped in for Morrissey on the top pairing with Jacob Trouba.

Then there's Sami Niku, the flashy young Finn who has impressed in spot duty with the Jets this season but now can't get into the lineup. Finally, there's Bogdan Kiselevich, who has done nothing but practise since arriving in Winnipeg at the late February trade deadline. He has is unlikely to see any game action, barring a major disaster.

Together, they are defencemen No. 7. 8, 9 and 10 on a team that can dress only six.

"Certainly in Sami Niku’s case, he’s a young player, but boy, from the start of the season to the end, he became a real viable National Hockey League player. It’s true of all of them, they can all play," said Maurice.

There's even more depth down on the farm, if needed. Tucker Poolman is currently sidelined with the Manitoba Moose, while Cam Schilling and Nelson Nogier have also played games with the Jets this season.

"It’s very strong. We’ve got 10 players here. Tucker Poolman is injured, but we’ve got two more guys in the minors that played hockey for us this year," said Maurice.

Of course, the hope is none of their services are required. Byfuglien returned from an ankle injury for the final five regular-season games, while Morrissey made it back in time for Wednesday's Game 1 against St. Louis after missing the final 20 games of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

"We know (Morrissey) is a critical piece to our game. If he’s out flying on his first shift, we figure that’s the way he always plays. If it takes him a little while to warm to it because he’s been out for six weeks, we’ll wait on that," said Maurice.

"He’s a great player for us. He’s going to go out and play the normal game that we ask of him. The advantage of it is his legs are strong and he was able to skate. He’s probably feeling better and stronger now than he did at this point last year."

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

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