Jets’ Pionk shows remorse for hit on Sandin: ‘What I did wasn’t right’

Neal Pionk discussed his recovery from a concussion, his hit that injured Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin, and the hit he took from Jason Spezza.

WINNIPEG — Neal Pionk sounded like someone who didn’t want to get into a war of words or wade into an episode of the blame game.

As the Winnipeg Jets defenceman returned to the ice with his teammates for the first time since being suspended two games for kneeing Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin and missing a third because of a concussion he sustained after taking a subsequent knee to the head from Jason Spezza, Pionk showed gratitude for not missing more time and expressed regret for the play that initially sent him to the sidelines.

“Listen, I’m not out there to hurt anybody or have any sort of intent. It made me sick watching (Sandin) go off the ice, and he’s limping off the ice,” said Pionk, noting his concussion symptoms lasted for four days before he started light workouts and eventually got back on the ice.

“He’s a great young defenceman, I never want to cut his career short, even by a game. So there’s remorse there, and definitely not the intent on the hit. I understand that what I did wasn’t right, and I’ve accepted that. I’m just looking forward to getting back.”

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Pionk is a valuable member of the Jets’ defence corps. In addition to putting up points and playing big minutes, playing a feisty, aggressive style is at the core of what makes him tick.

“No, I can’t change it, 100 per cent. But at the same time I have to learn my lesson,” said Pionk. “I think that’s the biggest thing about giving a hit like that and serving a suspension. You have to learn from your mistakes. I got to learn to pick my spots better and make clean body contact.

“I tried everything I could to lead with my shoulder. Obviously I didn’t and what happened, happened.”

When the topic turned to Spezza’s response, which was to try and exact some revenge on Pionk when he was in a vulnerable position, the Jets defenceman remained calm — though he didn’t provide an expansive answer.

If he was upset about the retaliation, Pionk either didn’t care to get into it or wasn’t interested in adding any prospective fuel to the fire over the series of events that had both the Jets’ and Maple Leafs’ fan bases up in arms.

“You’d probably have to ask him for details,” said Pionk, noting he suffered one concussion in high school but hadn’t had another until Dec. 5. “I saw the video, it is what it is. The league made their decision.”

On a day Jets head coach Paul Maurice said captain Blake Wheeler would be out for weeks and not days, Pionk getting the green light to play on Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres was a positive development for a club that carries a 13-9-5 record heading into this three-game homestand.

Pionk will slide back onto his familiar pairing with Brenden Dillon and he will be at the top of the Jets’ new-look first power-play unit.

It’s going to take a few more days of swelling to go down before the full extent of Wheeler’s injury is known, but the expectation is that he’ll be placed on Long Term Injury Reserve even though his season isn’t coming to a premature end.

“He’s still getting tested. We’ll just say this is weeks and not days. It’s probably another three or four days while all the swelling will come down and (we’ll know) how long it’s going to be. It’s going to be weeks,” said Maurice.

“You’re going to miss the player, for sure. But having him around and knowing he’s going to be back at some point is a good thing.”

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In the short term, recalling a forward from the Manitoba Moose got a bit more complicated after Maurice mentioned there was a positive case of COVID-19 that’s come up.

Because the Jets don’t want to risk bringing a player in that has potentially been exposed to the virus, they won’t likely bring another forward into the mix until later this week after several negative tests have been completed.

That means the Jets will dress 11 forwards and seven blueliners on Tuesday night and the lineup for Friday’s game against the Washington Capitals won’t be known for at least a few more days.

Wheeler was in the midst of his best game of the season at the time he suffered the right knee injury, scoring his first goal of the season (snapping a 21-game drought) and chipping in a pair of assists before exiting the contest after getting tangled up with teammate Nathan Beaulieu and Vancouver Canucks forward Vasili Podkolzin.

Given that Wheeler plays on the top line and was currently being used on both the power play and penalty-killing units, the standard lines about players trying to seize the opportunity apply.

“It’s going to be a big loss, but we’ve got a lot of talent in this locker room,” said Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois. “It’s going to take the whole team to contribute, not just on the ice but off the ice, too. Everybody wants to play, every night everybody can be the difference-maker.

“When we lose core players like that, it’s not just one or two guys, it’s everybody that has to step up. At the beginning of the year, we were in the same situation. We lost two, (Mark) Scheifele and (Wheeler, both to Covid-19 protocols). A lot of guys stepped their game up. It’s just going to be another opportunity for everybody to step in and fill his shoes until he comes back.”

At least for the time being, Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers remain together and they’ll be joined by Paul Stastny, while Andrew Copp moves up to play with Scheifele and Kyle Connor.

Copp is the Jets’ resident super-utility player, moving freely up and down the lineup and often shifting from position to position.

He’s off to a strong start to the campaign, with seven goals and 20 points in 27 games.

Although his production has tailed off a bit (two goals, four points in the past 12 games), Copp has been contributing in other areas — and as a member of the leadership group, he will continue to be leaned on.

“I mean, maybe a little bit but not really in terms of talking, just kind of playing, just having ownership,” said Copp. “I mean, I’ll be playing a pretty big role, I think, just by the way it looks. (Playing) a lot of minutes. Hopefully, my play does that talking, for sure.”

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