Bowness returns but Jets remain shorthanded for crucial Maple Leafs matchup

Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness discusses his experience dealing with COVID -19 which kept him away from the Jets to start the NHL season.

WINNIPEG – Rick Bowness is quick to admit that he’s not yet 100 per cent.

But now that he’s finally symptom free after his first bout with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, the 67-year-old head coach of the Winnipeg Jets is ready to make his season debut and it will come against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

“Weak. I don’t think I’d win too many fights right now,” said Bowness, asked to give an assessment of his health before weighing in on the disappointment of missing the first four games of the season. “Very disappointing and very frustrating to sit at home and watch the games. But I’ve got a great staff. Those guys did a wonderful job preparing the team.

“We’re just coming off four tough teams and we want to be in that conversation with the teams that are elite teams like that and are considered to be Stanley Cup contenders. If we want to be in that conversation, then we’ve got to find some ways to win some of these games.”

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The original plan was for Bowness to rejoin the Jets for Wednesday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, but he came down with a fever of 102 that morning.

“Hard. It really hit me hard. I’ve never had it, and I’ve had the booster shots. There were a couple of tough days,” said Bowness. “On Tuesday night I thought I could get on a plane on Wednesday morning and join the team in Denver. But woke up Wednesday morning and my temperature was 102 and (he was) sweaty. It was unreal, from when I went to bed to when I woke up early in the morning. I knew then we weren’t going too far. I went to bed at 9 in the morning and slept right through until 1.

“I never sleep during the day. I don’t sleep four hours at night. So it was unreal, I woke up and was like ‘Wow.’ After that it got better, I went for a walk yesterday, that was the first time out of the apartment in a week and it felt good. So right now no symptoms, it’s over 10 days so I’m not contagious, I know I’m not spreading anything so we’re all good.”

The Jets are 2-2 to start the season and they’ll be without first-line winger Nikolaj Ehlers for at least two more games after he was placed on IR on Friday afternoon, retroactive to Oct. 18.

Bowness said Ehlers is expected to return to the lineup shortly after he’s eligible to be activated from IR, which means he could be an option for the upcoming three-game road trip that features games against the Los Angeles Kings, Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights.

“No, we don’t think so. It’s not as bad as it could have been. Not as bad as the worst fears,” said Bowness. “He’s going to be okay. We’re hoping a week to 10 days. There’s nothing underlying there that it’s going to make this go a lot longer. At this stage, we’re still thinking the original time frame.”

Being without Ehlers is obviously a blow, especially when you consider how dangerous the top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor has been since they were put together during training camp.

“Yeah. It’s a huge loss. He’s such an offensive threat. He’s so dynamic coming through the neutral zone, so much speed. There’s a trickle-down effect, guys have to step up and try and replace him. He does so many little things well. Some nights it feels like we don’t have our legs and then Nikky starts skating and we kind of follow. It’s a tough loss for us. It’s going to be important that we find a way to try and fill his void in the meantime.”

Although the Jets and Maple Leafs only meet twice a season, things have a tendency to be heated when these two teams get together and that could be the case once again with Toronto planning to dress both Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford on Saturday.

“I don’t know, I think it’s just two competitive teams,” said Lowry, asked why there seems to be a rivalry between the two teams. “I know they get a ton of coverage. So obviously, you want to get up (for the game). You want to put your best foot forward. I think there was some chippiness last year.

“I don’t really expect a ton of carry-over. We’re trying to find our game, they’re trying to find their game. It’s two different seasons, type of thing. We know it’s an important game tonight. They’re a great team in this league. It’s going to be important that we’re on top of our game.”

The Jets will also be without defenceman Dylan Samberg, who will miss a second consecutive game and is officially day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Connor Hellebuyck starts in goal and he’ll go head-to-head with Ilya Samsonov.

Here’s how the Jets are expected to start tonight’s game:

Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Mason Appleton
Cole Perfetti-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Blake Wheeler
Morgan Barron-Adam Lowry-Saku Maenalanen
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby-David Gustafsson-Sam Gagner

Josh Morrissey-Neal Pionk
Brenden Dillon-Nate Schmidt
Logan Stanley-Dylan DeMelo

Connor Hellebuyck

David Rittich

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