With eight Winnipeg Jets regulars out of the lineup due to COVID, and another two dealing with injury, a hockey club relying heavily on its American Hockey League affiliate’s talent took to the ice of Little Caesar’s Arena on Thursday, proved its organizational depth and left with both points.
With captain Blake Wheeler on the mend following an awkward knee injury and recent Manitoba Moose call-up David Gustafsson already dealing with his second injury in just three appearances with the big league team, the Jets were already running thin when the team suffered its first positive case of COVID amongst its players in late-December.
Having called up forwards Kristian Reichel and CJ Suess from Manitoba, things got a little murkier when the team announced that fellow offenders Andrew Copp and Kristian Vesalainen had entered COVID protocol back on December 23.
Defenceman Ville Heiniola and forward Mikey Eyssimont were subsequently summoned from the ‘A’, before Cole Perfetti was assigned to the team’s taxi squad following the cancellation of the World Juniors. Goaltender Arvid Holm was then called up, but ultimately found himself amongst the next crew of players sent to the COVID protocols list. He joined Jansen Harkins and Dylan DeMelo as Winnipeg’s January 6th additions.
Goaltender Mikhail Berdin and defenceman Dylan Samberg were then called up to the big leagues, while Nikolaj Ehlers tested positive on January 10. The next day, four more players entered the protocol, including Kristian Reichel and three defencemen: Nathan Beaulieu, Ville Heinola and Logan Stanley, which really wore the Jets’ blueline thin.
Defenders Declan Chisholm and Simon Lundmark were then recalled, alongside forwards Austin Poganski and Jeff Malott on Thursday, as Paul Stastny, Brenden Dillon and Eric Comrie joined their fellow sick teammates with COVID.
Luckily for Winnipeg, Harkins and DeMelo were eligible to return from their extended absences in time for the team’s battle against the Red Wings on Thursday night.
But with holes throughout the lineup, the jigsaw puzzle that was the starting lineup was laced with a certain Manitoba Moose flavour.
Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm took their solo rookie laps, while Austin Poganski made his Winnipeg Jets debut in Detroit. All three players had family in attendance, while Cole Perfetti and CJ Suess filled out the remainder of the missing pieces on offence.
The patchwork quilt that was the Winnipeg Jets relied heavily on its call-ups on Thursday, while seeing needed production from its local Michigan trio of Connor Hellebuyck, Andrew Copp and Kyle Connor.
“The resilience of our group was outstanding,” head coach Dave Lowry said of his crew. “Our penalty kill, our goaltending — just outstanding. I liked the energy our young guys brought, and our top guys stepped up and played like our best players.”
Filling the shoes of Dillon, Stanley, Heinola and Beaulieu on the back-end were Samberg (17:52) and Chisholm (13:44), who both saw time on special teams for the Jets. Perfetti (14:10), Poganski (11:10) and Suess (6:00) filled in admirably for Ehlers, Stastny and Reichel, while Berdin served as the team’s backup in lieu of Comrie.
Andrew Copp got things going for the Jets, scoring his ninth goal five minutes into the opening frame. He added another to reach double digits midway through the second period.
“I definitely had a lot of chances tonight, I could have had more goals,” he said post-game. “I’m happy to come away with a big win, especially missing some guys and not having played in a while.”
His fellow statesman Kyle Connor put the cherry on the top of Connor Hellebuyck’s second shutout of the season with the 3-0 insurance marker on an empty-net strike with 2:31 remaining.
“There must be something in the water here,” Connor said of returning to Michigan. “We haven’t played here in a while, but we’ve all spent a lot of time here and we all grew up idolizing the Red Wings. There’s a little extra pep in your step coming home and playing them.”
Having played just once in the past week – which was a 7-1 thrashing by the Colorado Avalanche – Winnipeg performed well while bringing its organizational depth into the fold. With another five days before beginning a four-game road trip though Washington, Nashville, Boston and Pittsburgh, the Jets will hope to see the return to a more familiar lineup as they continue to wade through the postponed Canadian host dates through January.
Currently sitting at 17-12-5, Winnipeg is on the outside looking in, but does remain a few games-played behind its division leaders. Nashville, St. Louis and Colorado seemingly have the Central locked up, while Minnesota and Dallas will likely prove to be the Jets’ heaviest playoff competition.
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