WINNIPEG — Given the anticipation surrounding the monumental moment that was more than two weeks in the making, it was always going to be difficult for Pierre-Luc Dubois to live up to the hype as he suited up for the Winnipeg Jets for the first time.
But after shaking off the rust during the first period of his first game in nearly three weeks, Dubois got better as the game wore on and showcased the skill set that is sure to endear him to coaches, teammates and an entire fan base that is curious to get to know what the player acquired in the blockbuster deal for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic is made of.
One day after Roslovic supplied the game-winning goal in highlight-reel fashion for his hometown team and Laine found himself stapled to the bench for the final period and change of a 3-2 victory for the Columbus Blue Jackets over the Carolina Hurricanes, Dubois finally made his Jets’ debut.
Although he was held off the scoresheet in the Jets’ 3-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday, Dubois did his part to make a positive first impression.
“You see it’s all there, right? The speed, the strength, the play-making ability, the reads. He’s going to be a great player for us,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp, who assisted on both of the goals from Nikolaj Ehlers. “Really looking forward to having him get comfortable. He’s fit in really well in the room so far. Obviously, he’s been sitting at home for two weeks, pretty much the worst possible thing to do to be ready to go.
“But he did a pretty good job. Definitely wasn’t out of place by any means out there. We’re looking forward to getting into a little bit of a rhythm here with some games every other day to see what he can bring, so we know what he is capable of.”
If you’re looking for smooth circumstances to jump into the lineup, you came to the wrong place.
Because of the quarantine rules, Dubois was off the ice entirely for two weeks, forced to try and stay in shape by working out in his living room with equipment dropped off after his arrival late on Jan. 23.
And because he was benched for the final two periods in his last game with the Blue Jackets on Jan. 21, Dubois had gone three weeks since completing a full contest.
That’s not an easy task at the best of times, let alone the pressurized environment created after Dubois was acquired for a pair of first-round picks, including one that carries the profile and popularity of Laine.
Limited to only five shifts and just over three minutes of ice time in the first period, Dubois eased into things and needed some time to find his way, which was to be expected under the circumstances.
But he found another gear in the second period and maintained a strong level of play in the third as he got into more of a rhythm.
“It’s the first game in 20-something days. The legs, the hands, the head, you’re trying to get everything back and I felt as the game went on, I was getting some things back,” said Dubois, who finished with 20 shifts for 13:10 of ice time. “But I can play a lot better than that. I’ve never been injured, so I’ve never missed a (long) period of time. Going from Game 4 to Game (12) was a big jump. Game 4 was still kind of pre-season. Game (12), you’re in the season.
“During seasons, there are always steps that you take. There’s a step mid-way through the season after a couple of games at Christmas, then the playoff race, then the playoffs. My goal is just to kind of skip that step of the pre-season games and get right to where we’re at right now.”
There were no shot attempts for Dubois in this game as he skated alongside Jets sniper Kyle Connor for the first time, but that didn’t mean the new centre wasn’t involved offensively.
Whether it was imposing his will by making a move to go wide or by driving hard to the net, Dubois started to stand out – in a good way.
“As the minutes kept going, I felt better and better,” said Dubois. “I felt like I was reading plays faster, I was reading positioning faster where in the first period or so, I thought it took me a little bit too long to read. So, I think (with) practice and video and games, slowly it’ll come back.”
Dubois was on the ice for one of the Flames’ even-strength goals, but that was the result of a bouncing puck and a failed box out in front of the net, neither of which had anything to do with his positioning or his responsibilities on the play.
The powerful stride of Dubois was clearly evident during those final 40 minutes of play and he made an impressive across-the-body pass to Connor at the offensive blue line that was simply mesmerizing.
“It’s been a long time since he’s played a game, but there were lots of good things. Strong movement to the net, physicality, some real nice hands,” said Maurice. “The exciting part is he’s going to just keep getting better and better because he’s a powerful man.
“It looks like there won’t be holes in his game. He defended well, battled hard, made smart plays, showed some real nice finesse picking a stick in the offensive zone to open up a chance. He’ll get more ice time as we get moving forward and he gets his sea legs.”
This was a mostly evenly-played affair, but the Flames were able to capitalize on a late high-sticking minor to Jets defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, with Elias Lindholm delivering the game-winning goal with 1:42 to go in regulation time.
Maurice wasn’t about to take the bait when asked about the penalty call in question.
It’s too early to start racking up fines or drawing the ire of the men in stripes.
“I’ve got no complaints. It wouldn’t matter if I did,” said Maurice, whose team dropped to 7-4-1 after playing the Flames for the fifth time this season. “It’s a disappointing way to end the game.”
Once Dubois gets an even better handle on the systems play and the tendencies of his linemates (Mason Appleton replaced Trevor Lewis at right wing during the second period), look out.
“It’s a fun system to be a part of,” said Dubois. “There are minor adjustments from what I’m used to, but the guys out there have been great and helping me with video and helping me on the bench and practices and stuff like that. You get more used to it as time goes on and scenarios go on more and more.”
It’s evident that Dubois is going to do everything in his power to try and make up for lost time in this compressed season.
Despite being only 22, he’s been around long enough to know that heaping additional expectations on himself to produce immediately is going to do more harm than good.
He’s focusing on embracing the opportunity presented by the trade that created headlines all across the hockey world, with Tuesday marking the beginning of this new chapter.
With a pair of games on tap against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and Saturday, you can bet Dubois’ comfort level is going to be on the rise by the time the Jets hit the road for a four-game trip next week.