WINNIPEG - This isn’t a character assassination, nor is it meant to be a defence of Mark Scheifele’s actions.
Depending on one’s point of view, the debate surrounding the hit delivered by the Winnipeg Jets top centre on Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans is going to rage on for days, if not weeks and months.
Whether you stand on the side that Scheifele was simply finishing his check or whether you believe he took advantage of a vulnerable player is a moot point.
Scheifele is not a dirty player, but even someone with a previously squeaky-clean track record can make a snap decision in real time and be forced to deal with the consequences.
What’s done is done and now it’s all about watching how things unfold as the North Division final resumes on Friday night in Winnipeg.
Fortunately, Evans is feeling better after being taken off the ice on a stretcher following the empty-net insurance marker of the Jets 5-3 loss on Wednesday night, but he’s out indefinitely with a concussion.
While that’s a loss for the Canadiens, the Jets are going to be without Scheifele for the next four games after the NHL Department of Player Safety announced its ruling on Thursday evening.
In the video explanation of the penalty levied for charging, the NHL Department of Player Safety said Scheifele was “moving with excessive momentum gained from travelling a considerable distance finishes his check violently and with unwarranted force into Evans, making significant head contact in the process and causing an injury.”
Because Scheifele didn’t make a play on the puck and instead chose to focus on delivering the “high, predatory hit” after the outcome of both the play and the game had already been decided, that was a major factor in the final decision.
No doubt this is a significant statement made by the NHL and the penalty would likely have been more severe had he not previously been fined or suspended during his career, which includes 575 regular season games and 33 more in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With the Jets trailing the best-of-seven series 1-0, the earliest Scheifele can return is Game 6.
That’s a massive blow to a team that already lost top-pairing defenceman Dylan DeMelo on the opening shift of Game 1 and was already without the services of veteran forward Paul Stastny - who sat out with an undisclosed injury.
If this sounds eerily reminiscent of what happened in the series opener against the Calgary Flames last August, it should.
That game saw Scheifele knocked out of the contest on his third shift after he was on the receiving end of a hit from Matthew Tkachuk.
Maurice defended his player in that situation, and he did the same thing on Thursday when the topic was still in the process of being sorted out prior to the phone hearing.
Maurice made it clear that while the end result was unfortunate, his opinion is that it was not a dirty or vicious hit Scheifele delivered.
“You need to do everything you can to stop a goal from being scored. Hitting is part of the game. It was a heavy, heavy hit for sure, but it was clean,” Maurice said before the ruling was handed out. “For me the feet are on the ice, the arms are tucked in and it's a body contact. That's the way I see it. So it’s part of the game and I don’t even like that phrase but depending, as you said, what flag is on the car, you have a different opinion on that. But their guy took a hit to make a play. Our guy made a hit. It won them the game. Move on.”
As for Scheifele’s ability to deal with the emotional toll and the potential fallout, Maurice dismissed the suggestion his alternate captain was frazzled or frustrated in Game 1.
“He was playing hard. That was the line that had it going. He wasn’t frustrated. I liked his game. Lots of emotion. Lots of intensity. I thought he was right on,” said Maurice. “He’s a big strong powerful man that can skate. In order to try and cut that play off, he was skating pretty good. He wasn’t striding through the hit by any means. It was a hell of a hit. It was hard. Good on Evans, he took the hit to make the play. I didn’t have to bring in Oprah or Dr. Phil to sit down with Mark to see how he’s feeling this morning.”
The Jets also lost wingers Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton in that opening game against the Flames last August and in an instant, the entire dynamic of the series changed dramatically.
While there are certainly some parallels to be drawn, the Jets don’t believe history will necessarily repeat itself.
“It's just a completely different situation. We've got a season that we're really attached to,” said Maurice. “We've lost our first playoff game. We didn't lose three guys in one game. We won our second one in the bubble, too, so we'll be alright.”
Make no mistake, this is a XXL-sized dose of adversity for the Jets to try and meet head on, even if Stastny is able to return to action in Game 2.
Scheifele is the Jets top point producer and he’s recorded a point-per-game pace in each of the past five seasons and he’s basically kept up that pace in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Obviously he’s one of my best friends and I know that he doesn’t play the game in a vicious manner or anything like that. I know that the last thing he’s out there to do is to try to hurt somebody,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “Those types of things are scary, scary for everybody involved and you never want to see a player be in a situation like that. It’s definitely not something you want to see.
“To describe how much (Scheifele) means to our team, obviously he just had a phenomenal year, he’s a great leader in our room, he produces offensively for our team and he sort of does it all. This year, he’s taken a lot of steps forward in his game and shown that he’s amongst the elite players in our league. He’s a huge part of our team. He’s our best player up front and that’s all I can really say.”
It’s nearly impossible to replace a No. 1 centreman, but the Jets must lean on its depth and versatility up front to help pick up the slack.
The issue is compounded by the fact the Jets are likely to be without DeMelo for at least Game 2 and most likely for a good chunk of the series.
Maurice wasn’t about to tip his hand about whether it would be vetean Jordie Benn or rookie Ville Heinola jumping into the Jets lineup.
Benn brings experience and is an option to move onto the penalty kill, while Heinola would bring mobility and puck-moving ability as a transporter of the puck.
What we know is that the Jets will be doing things by committee on the back end.
“It’s a huge loss for us, especially when you lose him on the first shift of the game,” said Jets defenceman Neal Pionk. “He’s been a big part of our season and you saw last series, the effect that he has on our D corps. He’s been really good on the penalty kill all year. So, we’re going to have to come together as a group and move on from there.”
How both teams respond to the emotionally charged atmosphere the incident in question has created could very well determine which team is able to advance from this North Division final.
Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson made it clear his team would look to make life miserable for Scheifele as the series moves along, but the Jets can’t afford to be tentative or thrown off their game by the threat of the opponent possibly seeking some sort of retribution.
“Yeah, you’ve just got to block that stuff out. Everyone has seen something over the course of their career, someone getting stretchered off, something bad happening,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “It’s unfortunate, obviously. The health of the player is first and foremost, so knowing that he’s okay makes it easier for us to move on as players and I’m sure easier for them to move on.
“If we're missing Mark, you're missing arguably our best player...and, I think, you saw the effect of that in the bubble. We're way better equipped now to handle such an injury. So, guys will have to step up in his place. We've got to find a way to win the next game. That's all we're worried about right now. We're not worried about any targets or whatever they're saying in the media. We're worried about going on and winning Game 2. It's a big (expletive) game for us.”