EDMONTON – Paul Maurice isn’t sure if he’ll have any reinforcements available to plug into a lineup that is currently being constructed with the aid of duct tape.
Though he takes great pride in being a skilled orator, the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets isn’t exactly sure what he’s going to say to his charges before they face the Calgary Flames in their first elimination game of the post-season.
“Not that I’m hiding anything from you, but so much of it, to get it right, you have to have the feel of your room,” said Maurice. “And you don’t get that 24 hours before, it’s being around them (Thursday), getting a sense of what they need. The hockey part doesn’t change much, but the motivation part is certainly a feel thing.”
As for the mentality required when a team is in a lose-and-game situation, it’s all about finding a way to keep your emotions in check.
There’s no room for paralysis by analysis.
“You can’t go into the game with a fear of being eliminated. You can’t carry that,” said Maurice. “It’s still the game of hockey, the puck drops and all the important things to help you win or cost you games will still be true. What you’d like to do, in any Game 7 or any elimination game, is to play without that fear, and not carry it in.
“So mentally free yourself up, give yourself a chance to be as good a team as you can be and almost play with — looseness isn’t the right word, because it makes you think of casualness — it’s play without fear, and that can drive you. Sometimes the team whose back is against the wall has that extra bit of motivation and that extra bit of jump in their step.”
Jets centre Cody Eakin is no stranger to playing in elimination games and knows precisely what’s required.
“Get dirty. There’s nothing to save it for,” said Eakin, speaking metaphorically rather than about breaking the rules. “We’re preparing for a win, we’re preparing like another game and you really want to not think ahead too far. The old one period at a time, one shift at a time (mentality) is more crucial than ever.
The status of the quartet of injured forwards of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Mason Appleton and Mathieu Perreault remains a mystery — though none of those guys have been on the ice since suffering their respective ailments.
Maurice isn’t sure if any of the players will try to test things out during the morning skate, all he knows is that any decision revolving around a prospective return will be in the hands of the medical professionals.
“I can’t answer that question yet, in truth. I don’t know,” said Maurice. “This is all medical now. It’s driven by them. If we get a guy on the ice, obviously he’s a lot closer to playing.”
Should none of the four forwards be available to play, it will be rookie David Gustafsson or veteran Mark Letestu drawing into the lineup.
What factors will determine that choice?
“They’re different but they’re similar. They’re both incredibly responsible players,” said Maurice. “Mark has the experience to be a responsible player and Gustafsson is certainly learning the game. That’s what he will do. That will be his job. He’s going to be a really responsible National Hockey Leaguer. Some of the decision is actually going to be which player do I think is most flexible in terms of using him not just at centre, but on the wing. I haven’t made a decision because I need other information before.
“First, if I have to put a guy in. How the other lines will structure out — so we’ve clearly moved our lines around more than we’d like to — but the flexibility of that player comes in. That may be the tipping point for them.”
As wild as it sounds, the Jets could be turning to their 16th forward in what is just the fourth game of the post-season.
“There was a thought that if you were in a physical series that you could have to use the whole roster,” said Maurice. “They’re ready to go, We’re hoping there’s an advantage that if we have to put another forward in there will be fresh legs on that forward and he’ll be able to help us with that.
“We were hoping not to have to use them so early, you’d like to have your roster, but the game of hockey doesn’t allow it.”
Overcoming adversity has been an underlying theme for the Jets this season and they’re about to see if their wide array of experience on that front can help them find a way in a must-win game.
“We’ve kind of got the blue-collar approach here,” said Eakin, a Winnipegger who was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the trade deadline. “Guys have stepped in and played real well. Nobody is feeling sorry for us and we’re certainly not feeling sorry for ourselves.
“There’s a little piece of Winnipeg in everyone that translates to our game. These guys had gone through a lot this season before I got here. They’re relentless. It’s fun to be a part of and be a part of the struggle and the success. With the leadership, it starts there and the coaching staff. Guys with the right mentality when things are going tough. It filters down through everyone and (you) lean on each other and you work your way through it.”
Maurice also weighed in with some thoughts on the same subject Eakin discussed.
“There’s a little bit of handling adversity in Winnipeg because man, it gets cold in the winter, So you get used to some tough days, and everybody in the city is going through it, so you’re all kind of in it together,” said Maurice. “You get together as a group, this group will have its back against the wall so there’s that sense of community in the room, there’s that togetherness that you need.
“You need each other in this game, we need to play as a five-man block and a five-man group going up and down the ice. Having that sense of community, that sense of togetherness is critical.”
For the Flames, they’ve got the Jets on the ropes and are looking to close the series out.
“I don’t really think about killer instinct that much, to be honest with you,” said Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward. “If we play our game, that gives us a very good opportunity to win. We focus on the process all the time. We’re not asking anybody to do extraordinary things. This is an emotional time, but it’s also a time where you really have to be focused on your execution.”
As you can see, the cliches are flowing freely on both sides, so let’s see which club is going to find a way to get the job done.
Either the Jets will be heading home or there will be a winner-takes-all tilt set on Saturday night.