Jets carve out first win but lineup troubles deepen with Scheifele in COVID protocols

Kyle Connor scored two goals and added one assist while Connor Hellebuyck stopped 38 of 39 shots as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Anaheim Ducks comfortably 5-1.

WINNIPEG — This was a positive test result Mark Scheifele was desperately hoping to avoid.

And while the Winnipeg Jets first-line centre remains asymptomatic, he has joined captain and longtime linemate Blake Wheeler in the NHL’s COVID protocols, which left him as a spectator in Thursday’s home opener against the Anaheim Ducks.

Missing two-thirds of a top line in the fourth game of the season is not an optimal situation, especially for a team that opened the campaign with a record of 0-2-1 and was coming off a 6-5 overtime loss that included three unanswered goals from the Minnesota Wild.

“You just kind of have to keep rolling,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt, who saw what an outbreak can look like firsthand last season as a member of the Vancouver Canucks.

“It’s almost like an injury where you have to keep rolling, you have to continue to have the next set of lines ready to be made up, the next set of D pairs ready to be made up. It’s something you can’t really prepare for. This is a lot tougher because you really can’t prepare for it and all of a sudden it comes out of nowhere and sidelines a guy or two.”

Because he is asymptomatic, Scheifele won’t automatically be in quarantine for the 10-day minimum requirement like Wheeler is.

Scheifele will remain in the protocol until he can produce two negative tests separated by a 24-hour period.

Jets forward Paul Stastny has been talking with Wheeler daily and it sounds like he’s on the mend, though it remains to be seen when he might be able to rejoin his teammates and jump back into the lineup.

With Scheifele and Wheeler both out, Jets head coach Paul Maurice once again went to the blender, shaking up the top two lines.

Pierre-Luc Dubois was reunited with junior linemate Evgeny Svechnikov and Kyle Connor, while Andrew Copp slid into the second-line centre spot with Nikolaj Ehlers and Stastny — putting back a line that enjoyed plenty of success together last season.

Those newly-constructed units got off to a nice start, producing a 5-1 victory that featured an inspired performance from goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who made 38 saves.

“It seems like whenever he’s not the best goalie in the world for a few games, it takes just one game like that for him to get right back there,” said Copp, who scored his third goal in as many games. “He was huge for us, he’s going to be huge for us. We have all the confidence for him. I feel like usually one of those performances kickstarts a little bit of a run for him. We’re looking forward to seeing how he can take that and run with it for the next few games.”

Connor scored twice to give him five on the season, which is one behind NHL leader Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.

The Jets were already looking for players from within to find another level in the absence of Wheeler and that hill got steeper with Thursday’s news about Scheifele.

This was certainly an important first step for a group that wasn’t happy about starting the campaign 0-2-1.

“It gets us going in the right direction, shows what we need to do to win games in this league,” said Hellebuyck. “A great performance from everyone and we need to continue to build off that.”

Last season, Tucker Poolman was the only Jets player to get COVID-19, so having multiple players out at the same time is something new for this group to try and manage.

Schmidt has more first-hand knowledge on the virus than he’d like, but that’s left him as a valuable resource during a time that has to be stressful and leaves players on high alert.

“It’s not a good thing to have a lot of experience in this matter. Here’s the thing. I’ve had it twice,” said Schmidt. “I had it back in November last year and had it again with the team. Both times I would say I felt like I was doing everything I could and yet somehow this thing is such a phantom, you just don’t. And for Blake or whoever, I know when I first got it and subsequently then (other) people got it, I felt terrible.

“Everyone was like, it could have come from anywhere, it could have been anything you did, one surface you touched. It’s just one of those things that for me, I’d beat myself up about it and after you get through it, you realize it could have been from anything. I think our guys have been really good about it. So has our staff. I just think that this thing is such a ghost, you just never know. That’s what makes it hard. I like the way we’ve done things so far, as a group, a team, an organization, and what our guys have been doing. I don’t think it’s something that needs to be changed. It’s just stuff that’s happening across our League and across our world. It’s tough, tough to put a finger on it.”

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Unlike last season, the Jets players are fully vaccinated, which can provide a level of comfort — even if the test results for Wheeler and Scheifele were a stark reminder that dealing with the pandemic remains a daily battle.

“Last year, (when) you went through it, no one had been so you kind of felt that inevitable feeling, that it was coming for you,” said Schmidt. “I had tested negative five days before the first guy had tested positive in Vancouver. I thought I was in the clear but even then it still finds a way.

“For me personally, I wouldn’t say I’m more or less scared. I’d say I’m less concerned about the fact that our whole team is vaccinated. At some point, we have to say we’ve done all we can. If you’re vaccinated and you do the right things, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just this thing’s going to happen whether it’s in the hockey rink, in the grocery store, with your family. This thing has to come to a point that if you are vaccinated, how much more can you do? You’re doing your part, right, and if you’re doing the right things, we’ve got to move towards having things to be normal.”

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The Jets are hoping to avoid the type of outbreak that seriously impacted several teams last season and are dealing with the situation as best they can.

“I guess we’re not surprised with anything. Trainers kind of gave us a warning that there might be a trickle-down effect,” said Stastny. “So whether more guys go in protocol or not, I think we’ll kind of be ready for it. Not as nervous as you would have been last year. Always kind of expect the unexpected. It’s unfortunate times right now, kind of unforeseen. But nothing comes easy in this world. There’s always little ups and downs and little bumps in the road, and this is another one of them.

“We’ll leave it all out there. We’re not going to use any excuses. Whether we’re dealing with this or with injuries, no one’s going to feel bad for you. This league’s not easy. It never is, never was, never has been. It’s always going to continue to be a challenge, and that’s what makes it so fun every day and every night.”


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