Jets face critical stretch of season as Wheeler inches closer to return

Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey discusses what new head coach Dave Lowry has brought to the team since taking over, says his expectations have been pretty cut and dry, and he's brought a real competitive environment to practice.

WINNIPEG - The calendar may suggest otherwise, though the situation the Winnipeg Jets find themselves in leads one to believe they could be on the verge of a defining moment.

Every season has at least one and sometimes there are multiple stretches that end up telling the tale.

But as the Jets embark on a four-game road trip that opens with a game against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, one thing is abundantly clear - things don’t get much tougher than they’re going to be over the next 10-to-14 days.

After overcoming a potential COVID-19 crisis last week when eight players and a coach ended up in protocol, the Jets are entering an eight-game stretch that features matchups with some of the league’s best and/or hottest teams.

Most of those clubs on the docket are either in a battle for the lead in their respective divisions or are comfortably inside the playoff line in either the Eastern or Western Conference.

Just two of those opponents are currently below the playoff line - and one of them, the Vancouver Canucks, is hot on the heels of the Jets (who do hold four games in hand).

The stakes are clearly defined, as the Jets enter Tuesday’s action with a record of 17-12-5 and 39 points.

Will they remain on a roll, tread water or come up short?

“It will be a good test for our team,” Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey said before hitting the road. “Overall we’re just excited to play. We’ve been at home a lot here and practising a lot since the break and since the Christmas break. Everyone’s just excited to get into a normal schedule and play against some of the best teams in the league.

“It’s a chance to see where we’re at and we need to get some wins here. So it’s a big trip for us.”

The Jets have been without captain Blake Wheeler since he suffered a suspected knee injury on Dec. 10 in a game against the Vancouver Canucks.

In that contest, Wheeler scored his first goal of the season and produced three points to extend his point streak to five games.

Wheeler has been skating on his own, but was back on the ice with his teammates for the first time on Monday and was moving around well. He might be an option to return to game action at some point on this trip if things continue to progress.

“Blake being out for an extended period of time obviously is a huge blow. But he was around the group for a while. He's been very supportive of what we're doing,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “You're never going to replace your captain. But what you do is you challenge your other leaders. They have to pick up the slack that's missing. And I think our guys have done a real good job. And obviously they've been in contact with Blake as I have. But it's leadership by committee and I really have liked the way that our guys have handled it.”

Although some lineup uncertainty remains -- forward Evgeny Svechnikov (upper body) remains day-to-day, while David Gustafsson (lower body) and CJ Suess (upper body) are sidelined longer than that -- the Jets are down to just two players in the NHL’s Covid-19 protocol, backup goalie Eric Comrie and defenceman Brenden Dillon - and both guys should be available for Thursday’s game against the Nashville Predators.

Monday marked the one-month anniversary of Lowry taking over as interim head coach from Paul Maurice.

Because of the extended breaks in the schedule caused by the pandemic, the Jets have played only six games during that span, going 4-2, including four wins over the past five outings.

“I would not have known it was a month. It has gone extremely quick,” said Lowry. “There's been a lot going on. And there's been a lot to deal with. We've practised more than we've probably liked. But as a coach coming in and taking over, there are benefits to that. And we've been able to grow as a group.

“I think they have an understanding of how I do things. And I've liked the way that we've played. I've liked the way that we've worked in practice. That's a credit to our leadership group.”

What has stood out most to Jets players in the month since the coaching change?

“I don’t know what has stuck me the most about him. For me, I’ve had him before in the past and whatnot, so I kind of knew what to expect with him,” said Morrissey. “But I think overall just a competitive environment in practice, attention to detail about trying to get up to speed. We’ve had a chance to do that in practice with the number of them that we’ve had.

“And I also think he played as long as he did in the NHL, he understands the rest component and when to kind of give us a lighter day or an off day. I think, for me, it’s been what I’ve expected. It’s been cut and dry with his expectations. Now, here it’s a good opportunity for us to play a lot of games in the next few weeks and kind of refine some of the things we’ve been working on.”

Having an opportunity to drill into some systemic changes - even if they are tweaks rather than an overhaul -- with all of the practice time is an obvious benefit for the Jets.

Now it’s about sound execution and delivering results.

“The biggest thing is it allowed us to grow as a group, for the guys to have an understanding how there are going to be some subtle changes from myself and Paul,” said Lowry. “I like the direction, I like the place we're at today.”

The Jets first game under Lowry’s watch came against the Capitals, a 5-2 loss that featured two empty-net goals.

“Obviously, it was a pretty eventful day for us, with a lot of changes, a lot of things that kind of threw us off guard for sure with the (coaching) change,” said Morrissey. “But I thought we did a lot of good things in that game, and gave ourselves a decent opportunity to win. Looking back, they had a lot of players in the Covid protocol and some injuries. I believe they're a little healthier now as well.

“So, yeah, I think we're more prepared. We've had a sort of month to get acquainted with some changes we've made. They play really well at home and with them having more of their guys back in their lineup, they're one of the best teams in the league for a reason. Certainly, we want to start the road trip off the right way.”

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