WINNIPEG — The agitation was evident for Mark Scheifele throughout the course of the evening and the scary incident that occurred when his frustration boiled over could have serious ramifications for the Winnipeg Jets.
The Winnipeg Jets top centre caught Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans with a high and hard hit after an empty-net goal when he was clearly in a vulnerable position.
Scheifele isn’t a dirty player by any stretch of the imagination, but he made a mistake in real-time on a defenceless opponent and it’s one that will almost certainly come with consequences. On Thursday morning, the department of player safety announced Scheifele would have a phone hearing for the hit, meaning the longest suspension he could be assessed is five games.
Evans left the ice on a stretcher in what was a sombre and unexpected way to end what was an otherwise entertaining game that ended in a 5-3 loss for the Jets in the opening game of the North Division final.
Scheifele received a charging major and a game misconduct and it will be a surprise if he’s not given a suspension, though he’s never had one before.
As Scheifele made his way down the tunnel after his ejection, cameras caught a look of remorse on his face as he turned to see Evans sprawled on the ice with medical staff surrounding him.
“Well, hopefully the young man is going to be alright,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It’s such a highly unusual play because you’re backchecking back to kill and empty-net play, you’re coming full speed. When Mark stopped skating, he kept his arms in. It’s a heavy, heavy hit. There’s no doubt about that. I’m sure the league will have its opinion.”
The Canadiens saw things differently and directed their displeasure toward Scheifele as he left the ice and you would expect they would be looking for retribution the next time he’s on the ice.
“It was a dirty hit, but the league’s going to take care of it. But if he gets back in this series, we’re going to make his life miserable,” said Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson. “I think the league’s going to do a good job with that.”
When Edmundson’s comments were passed along to Maurice, he once again came to the defence of his player.
“The players will sort things out on the ice,” said Maurice. “Nobody would be stupid enough to say anything pre-meditated going into the next game.”
Things didn’t boil over on Wednesday night, but the play could serve as a critical point in this series — perhaps for both teams.
Every Jets player asked about the incident expressed concern for the well-being of Evans in the post-game zoom interviews.
“Just hope he’s okay. I mean, that’s it. Really, that’s all. That’s the concern,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “It’s never good to see a guy on the ice for that amount of time and the stretcher out is scary. So we’re just hoping that he’s okay.”
The Jets were already without veteran forward Paul Stastny, who missed the opener with an undisclosed injury.
Stastny had an outstanding first round — which included the overtime winner in Game 2 — and he was on the ice for special-teams work on Monday, but was noticeably absent from Tuesday’s workout and didn’t participate in Wednesday’s morning skate.
Maurice shrugged off Stastny’s absence on Tuesday, suggesting it was simply a day off for someone with more than 1,000 regular season games and roughly 2,500 practices on his resume.
But it’s the time of the year when injury updates are vague and that remained the case following Wednesday’s game.
“Paul just came up… there wasn’t a mechanism for injury. There wasn’t an event that happened in practice,” said Maurice. “It ended up being a game-day decision on that one. So we don’t think that’s too significant, so we’ll list him as day-to-day.”
There’s no doubt the Jets missed Stastny’s calming presence and his absence was compounded on the opening shift of the game when defenceman Dylan DeMelo suffered an injury.
DeMelo, who flourished in a top-pairing role with Josh Morrissey against the Oilers, lasted only 29 seconds before he departed with what appeared to be an issue with his right leg or ankle.
DeMelo pinched down at the right point and seemed to get his right skate tangled up with Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher.
That left the Jets to finish the contest with five defencemen, putting a strain on a group that entered the game well-rested.
Maurice indicated he wouldn’t have an idea on DeMelo’s status until at least Thursday.
Should DeMelo not be available for Friday’s game, the Jets will turn to either veteran Jordie Benn or rookie Ville Heinola.
The goalie matchup dominated the headlines going into this series and Round 1 went to Carey Price, though it’s not like Hellebuyck had much chance on two of the backdoor tap-ins or the impressive show of patience Nick Suzuki displayed on a two-on-one rush.
Hellebuyck had no interest in providing an evaluation of the goalie in the crease across from him, which is a smart move.
There’s absolutely nothing to be gained from that.
Hellebuyck respects Price but it’s not his job to pump his tires or critique his play.
“I’m going to refrain from answering those questions. This is going to be a hard series and I don’t really care about what’s going on down there,” said Hellebuyck. “I care about my game and how we’re playing.”
When it comes to the rest versus rust debate, the storyline proved to be topical.
What began as a potential advantage quickly turned into a detriment, as the Jets came out flat and quickly fell behind in the opener of the North Division final with the Canadiens.
After all of the talk about reinforcing good habits during a lengthy break following a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers, the Jets were simply unable to practice what they were preaching.
Patience was a prevalent word going into the series, but Winnipeg was a bit loose when it came to defensive coverage and they were burned by several odd-man rushes.
“We just weren’t particularly sharp. We had a hard time in two areas,” said Maurice. “Probably just that sharpness with the puck, how we moved it. And then some of our decisions to try and do things we don’t need to do. But again, you can look slow when the other team plays a real fast game.
“And they closed out a lot of those places that they’re really good at. Before I give you a long speech about how much better we can play, I think you have to look at Montreal. They played a hell of a game.”
The Jets weren’t using the extended break as an excuse, but you can’t ignore the fact it played a role in the outcome.
“I think five to six days is a really great amount of rest come playoff time. We were itching around 10 and you just kind of lose that bite a little bit of what a playoff series is like,” said Wheeler. “But, you know, in some ways it’s a great reminder. You know, I talked to my wife about it a little bit last night that it’s tough to match what those guys have just been through. They just won an emotional Game 7 and they’re kind of riding it high and we’ve just been kind of sitting on our hands.”
The shoe was on the other foot for the Jets back in 2018, when they carried over the momentum from a Game 7 on the road against the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening game of the Western Conference final but quickly ran out of gas.
With three games to come over the next five days, it will certainly be a taxing stretch for the Canadiens and that’s potentially where the Jets might benefit from the extended break.
Nobody expected the Jets to cruise through the Stanley Cup Playoffs and now the challenge for them is to try and rebound from their first loss of the post-season.