The evening was already pretty much in “the down the sink mode” for the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night before the thunderous hit Mark Scheifele laid on a defenseless Jake Evans of Montreal.
The hit happened with just under a minute remaining in the eventual 5-3 loss to the Canadiens.
But with Scheifele almost certain to face supplemental disciplinary action from NHL Player Safety after being summoned for a hearing by phone, down the sink might be a very soft description for the hard place the Jets could find themselves, going into Game 2 on Friday at Bell MTS Place.
Paul Stastny missed Game 1 with an undisclosed injury, and for all intents and purposes, so did Dylan DeMelo after inadvertently locking skates with Brendan Gallagher just 29 seconds into his first shift.
DeMelo’s blueline partner Josh Morrissey said it was a tough break: “Yeah it sucks. Especially that early in the game.
“We had pretty good chemistry going here,” said Morrissey ahead of Thursday’s practice. “It changes how you run your backend. All of a sudden you’re playing with five defensemen and things are moving around a lot more.”
Read more: Hextall on Hockey: Scheifele knows better
Down 1-0 at home, Winnipeg is now looking at the prospect of playing without their No.1 center, without half of their No.1 shutdown defense pairing, and quite possibly their No.2 center, against a fired-up opponent.
‘Adversity Is Us’ would have to be the theme for the Jets if that scenario becomes reality when the puck drops at 6:30 p.m. CT in downtown Winnipeg.
Despite the sudden dearth down the middle, Head Coach Paul Maurice does have options. Pierre-Luc Dubois slid from right-wing to center to take the place of Stastny in Game 1. And Scheifele’s spot could be filled by Andrew Copp — who performed that exact role when the Jets star center was injured just minutes into last summer’s play-in series versus Calgary in the Edmonton Bubble.
Blake Wheeler could also move into the middle, but Maurice has admitted playing right-wing is not Copp’s strong suit, and neither is it Mathieu Perreault’s. So the Jets “Jack of all Trades” forward would appear to be the likeliest option, if George Parros and company from Player Safety arrive at the expected conclusion Scheifele will have to sit out a game or two as a consequence of his highly questionable decision to try to send Evans into the tenth row of the stands.
Copp says he is ready for that challenge if need be, and so is the team.
“If we’re missing Mark, we’re missing arguably our best player for however long. You saw the effect of that in the Bubble,” said Copp who is coming off a career season. “We’re way better equipped to handle that now. Guys will have to step up in his place if that’s the case.”
Copp understands entirely the way the Montreal players are reacting to the hit, but says perspective hinges on what side of the debate you’re on. “If that had happened to one of our players, I think your hands would be up,” admitted Copp. “In a general sense, it’s on both guys.”
Copp explained the way he sees it, when asked for his interpretation of the hit involving his former roommate and Evans.
“When someone is in a vulnerable position you make sure your shoulders are down, you hit him in the chest. You don’t hit him in the head. You don’t hit him late. And you really don’t want to put yourself in a vulnerable situation, to get hit like that or give the guy an opportunity to hurt you. For Scheif, it looked like he hit him in the chest, but the league will have their say on it.”
Montreal Interim Head Coach Dominic Ducharme confirmed on Thursday that Evans has been diagnosed with a concussion as a result of the hit. And that becomes even more of a red alert given the 25-year-old forward’s history of brain injuries. “Any concussion you can be worried about,” said Ducharme via Zoom, “so when it affects the brain — obviously you can have one and sometimes it’s one too many. You never want to see that. We’ve not been too lucky with that this year. We’ve had a few guys and it’s too bad to see what happened to him last night.”
Montreal Defenseman Jeff Petry, who helped set up the first and winning goals by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brendan Gallagher respectively, said the No.1 priority for him and his teammates Friday night will be on gaining retribution for Evans, but in a productive way.
“The best way to get back at them for that is to win the series,” said Petry. “So our focus is to make sure we’re playing the right way — the way we’ve played in the last three games — and make ’em pay that way.”
Obviously, Winnipeg will seek to prevent that from happening, and Copp said that is what they are most committed to. “We gotta bounce back, find a way to win the next game. We’re not worried about any targets or whatever they’re saying in the media. I think we’re worried about going out and winning Game 2.
“It’s a big f–king game for us.”