It has been just a little over seven months since the Calgary Flames shut out the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 in what was the fourth and final game of their qualifying round series in the Edmonton bubble. So that, naturally, was one of the topics of discussion following Winnipeg’s final pre-season/end-of-training-camp workout on Wednesday at Bell MTS Place.
Jets star goalie Connor Hellebuyck was completely transparent in sharing his thoughts on whether that series should still be on his and his teammates’ minds going into Thursday night’s 7 p.m. faceoff against the Flames on 680 CJOB.
“We got beat and I’m still bitter about it to this day because I want to win and they ruined our chances for a Stanley Cup,” the reigning Vezina Trophy winner admitted freely during a post-practice Zoom call session.
“For me, personally, I’m going to use it as motivation. They’re a good team, hats off to them, they played a good series. But I think it would be crazy for us not to use it and try and get a little jump energy-wise.”
The emotions were certainly cranked up very early in the series when Mark Scheifele suffered what was believed to be an ankle injury following a collision with the Flames’ talented antagonist Matthew Tkachuk in the first period of the opener. Jets head coach Paul Maurice had some pretty pointed comments for Tkachuk after the game, saying it was an intentional “filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg.”
There were no ensuing fireworks in Game 2, and Maurice said Wednesday that history has shown over the last few years that those kinds of situations tend to get put in the rearview mirror pretty quickly.
“If there was an incident and some hype about what was going to happen next, it was dead quiet, so you really never know. My feeling is the playoffs are a different kind of animal and the intensity’s high and then it kind of resets the next year,” said the Jets head coach.
“I know both teams want to win that first game, you want to get off to a good start, so that will be priority one.”
The teams only met once during the regular season in 2019-20, and that was the Heritage Classic outdoor game at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, won 2-1 in overtime by Winnipeg. Adam Lowry was in the middle of some controversy late in the second period of that game when he received a five-minute boarding major and subsequent two-game suspension from NHL Player Safety for a hit from behind on Flames defenceman Oliver Kylington.
And on Wednesday’s post-practice Zoom call, Lowry was also of the opinion that in most instances, teams are more apt to turn the page than continue with another paragraph. At least that will be his focus for Thursday night.
“Moving on into a fresh season, we’re focused on one goal and that’s winning hockey games. The things that happened in the past, you’re gonna leave ’em there,” said the six-foot-five, 210-pound centre, who is going into his seventh NHL season, and a contract year to boot.
Lowry also brought up the uncertainty presented by this year’s schedule, which will see the Jets play games exclusively within the all-Canadian North Division as a precaution to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“We don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like playing the same team nine, 10 times. I think it’s all new to us. It’s a really unique opportunity. Hopefully, we can show we’re a contending team in this country. We have the players to do that.”
While Hellebuyck wants to exact a little scoreboard revenge, he also subscribes to the theory that it’s virtually impossible to know what will unfold in Thursday’s game.
“I’ve seen first games wind up in shutouts and I’ve seen first games end up in 10-goal games,” said Hellebuyck, who had a 3.04 goals-against average and .904 save percentage in the playoff series versus the Flames.
“What I expect it to be is a tight game, because with 56 games — and all in the division — there’s no nights you can just write it off and say, ‘Well the next one’s going to be twice as important.’ Now every single night is going to have that playoff feel. I expect the playoff feel right from day one.”
Lowry also feels special teams play — especially the Jets’ penalty killing — is also going to be a major factor in the game.
“Having that familiarity with them, with how they played in the bubble, we expect that style to be very similar. They have a lot of high-end skill, their power play (5 for 17) really burned us in the series,” recalled the 27-year-old Calgary native.
“It’s going to be important we’re disciplined against them. They’re a big team, they can skate, they’re physical and hard on the puck. They run real solid systems — they don’t really have a weakness that you can exploit. It’s about making less mistakes than them. We know it’s going to be a big challenge for us to start the season.”
It’s a challenge that could possibly be raised a notch or two depending on the status of Nikolaj Ehlers. The speedy left-winger, who scored his first two career playoff goals last summer against Calgary, was not eligible to practise on Wednesday as a result of a COVID Protocol Related Absence (CARP) but Maurice did say Ehlers was “in the range” of being in the lineup Thursday.
Considering the “Dashing Dane” has been skating on the number one line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler since training camp began, there will be plenty of interest in what Ehler’s final status is for the game.
Winger Jansen Harkins, who scored the opening goal in Winnipeg’s only victory of the play-in series in Edmonton, is also a question mark as he recovers from an undisclosed injury he presumably suffered during last Wednesday’s scrimmage.