EDMONTON — Paul Maurice was adamant he saw a needless, dirty play that resulted in an injury to one of his most important players.
Falling in Game 1 in a short series is never optimal, but the more pressing matter for the Winnipeg Jets is the suspected loss of top centre Mark Scheifele, who departed the game with what looked to be a serious injury to his left leg.
Scheifele was along the boards with the puck in the offensive zone when he was gently pushed from behind by Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.
As Tkachuk finished his check, it appeared as though his skate made contact with the back of Scheifele’s leg.
Scheifele’s leg then went awkwardly into the boards at a bad angle and it was immediately apparent the injury was serious — with Scheifele writhing in pain on the ice.
Scheifele, who was limited to just three shifts, couldn’t put any weight on his left leg and had to be helped off the ice and down the tunnel.
The head coach of the Jets voiced his displeasure in real time and he didn’t back down one bit when asked about the play in question following the game.
“It was intentional. It was a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg,” Maurice said after his team dropped the series opener 4-1. “You can’t see it on the program feed, but take the blue line feed and you zoom in. He went after the back of the leg. He could have cut his Achilles. He could have ended the man’s career. It’s an absolutely filthy, disgusting hit.
“I was about as clear as a man can be about what I saw.”
There was plenty of chatter going into the series about the impact Tkachuk could have and the overriding feeling was that he was going to introduce himself to Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck and live in and around the blue paint of his crease.
Tkachuk didn’t get into the kitchen of Hellebuyck, though he drew the ire of the Jets shortly after the series began.
During the stoppage in play as Scheifele was attended to, Maurice could clearly be heard barking profanities at the officials and the Flames.
There was no call on the play and to his credit, Tkachuk answered the bell and dropped the gloves with Jets captain Blake Wheeler on the ensuing shift after a discussion at the faceoff circle.
The loss of Scheifele for an extended period of time could be a crippling blow for the Jets, since the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft is a proven playoff performer who has 16 goals and 26 points in 28 playoff games.
Scheifele logs the most minutes of any Jets forward and is also a weapon on the power play as the trigger man in the slot.
“We don’t know the severity of it. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s kind of a rhetorical question in a way,” said Wheeler, who spent the final two periods at centre on the top line. “Arguably your top player, your top offensive player, and logs so many minutes and especially down the middle, such a huge piece of what we do and what we need to do.
“No matter what, you can’t replicate what he brings to our lineup so we talked before this game, a couple of years ago he had 14 goals in a playoff run, 11 on the road, I mean that’s the type of guy Mark Scheifele is. There’s nobody, well, we did the history and there’s nobody that’s done that ever. That’s a big piece of what we do.”
Compounding matters was the fact Jets winger Patrik Laine left the game in the third period and didn’t return with a suspected hand injury after delivering a hit on Flames captain Mark Giordano.
Scheifele’s expected absence could serve as the latest rallying cry for the Jets during a season that has been filled with them.
Whether it was Dustin Byfuglien’s unexpected and sudden skate into the sunset after requesting a personal leave of absence on the day before training camp, a car crash involving Sami Niku and Kristian Vesalainen on the way to the rink on the first day of camp or veteran centre Bryan Little suffering a serious injury when he was hit in the ear with a slapshot from a teammate, the Jets have endured more than their share of turbulent times.
Can they find a way to pick themselves up off the mat one more time in what could be their toughest test yet?
“I think that’s been our calling card all year, being able to handle adversity right from the first day of training camp,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp, who scored the game’s opening goal after a slick feed from Adam Lowry. “If you even want to go back into the summer a little bit. We’ve handled it as well as we can all year in terms of on-ice performance. But we’ve handled it mentally even better. It’s going to be another hurdle for us, but like I said we’ve been doing it all year.
“If we miss any of those guys, it’s going to be a collective effort for sure but we’ve handled circumstances all year and we’re going to rely on that next-man-up mentality and that team play we’re capable of playing.”
In the short term, the Jets survived the opening period and actually took a 1-0 lead when Copp — who is Scheifele’s roommate — scored on a one-timer from the slot.
But the tables quickly turned, as the Jets were unable to generate any sustained offence after that point and then were soundly outperformed on special teams, as the Flames scored twice on the power play and added a shorthanded marker from Tobias Rieder.
The Jets hung around and had plenty of opportunities to cut into the two-goal deficit, but went 0-for-7 with the man-advantage, while struggling with both their puck movement and entries as they managed only five shots on goal.
“We didn’t win hardly any battles and it’s an area… it’s an easy fix,” said Wheeler. “Just simplify some things and win a couple of battles and we’ll get the power play back on track. We’ve got a lot of confidence in our power play.”
With Game 2 set for Monday afternoon, restoring that confidence will be critical, especially with the status of two key members in question.