It’s pretty clear that without Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine in their lineup, the Winnipeg Jets have a far better chance of landing the first pick and Alexis Lafreniere in the draft than they do of winning their qualifying round series against the Calgary Flames. Should the Jets lose the series, their chances of winning the draft lottery are one-in-eight. Without two players who combined for 57 goals and 136 points, their chances of winning this series are about one-in-a million.
So you’re saying there’s a chance? Well, truth be told, if there’s a chance that super pest Matthew Tkachuk went into what looked like an innocuous collision with Scheifele in the first period of the Flames’ 4-1 win over Winnipeg with the intention of trying to slice the back of Scheifele’s leg open, then anything is possible. And after the game, Jets coach Paul Maurice made no effort to hide his feelings that that was exactly what Tkachuk did.
“It was intentional,” Maurice said of the Tkachuk hit. “It was a filthy, dirty kick to the back of (Scheifele’s) leg…(Tkachuk) went after the back of (Scheifele’s) leg. He could have cut his Achilles (tendon). He could have ended a man’s career. It was an absolutely filthy, disgusting hit.”
Maurice said both Scheifele and Patrik Laine, who left the game in the middle of the third period with a suspected wrist injury, will both be evaluated by medical specialists on Sunday. But if the Jets continue to respond during the rest of this series the way they did after they lost Scheifele, they might as well book their trips back to Winnipeg right now. Because it was Tkachuk, there seem to be all sorts of conspiracies of skullduggery, which means either Tkachuk will be suspended by the time the teams meet in Game 2 Monday afternoon or he’ll probably continue to rent space in the Jets’ heads.
For his part, Tkachuk said the hit was, “such an accident.” Tkachuk said he saw Scheifele turning away along the boards and went in for a hit and his left leg collided with Scheifele’s left leg. “I feel terrible,” Tkachuk said. “He’s a top player in the NHL and somebody I’ve come to know the last couple of summers training with Gary Roberts and he’s such a great guy. Just a top player in the league and it’s not good for the game when somebody like that isn’t in the game. It was very unfortunate and unlucky and such an accident and I feel terrible about it.”
It appeared that Laine was injured after receiving a slash from Flames defenceman Mark Giordano, but Maurice said the ailment was not related to the slash. The Jets, who were plagued with defections on defence and endured a number of key injuries throughout the regular season, were looking forward to what they might be able to accomplish with a full complement of talent in their lineup. But the terrible injury fortunes that followed them through the season apparently did not take a break while the NHL dealt with a global pandemic. Even though Jets captain Blake Wheeler challenged Tkachuk to a fight and the Jets scored not long after to take a 1-0 lead, it’s safe to say they did not respond well to losing their best offensive player.
“We struggled, there was no doubt about it,” Maurice said. “I thought we were fine for a while, but we got onto the special teams where Mark is a key piece. We’ve spent years with that set-up and certainly worked on it quite a bit the last three weeks. So we struggled, special teams especially. It had a major impact, without a doubt.”
So it will be up to the NHL’s department of player safety to decide whether Maurice has the right version of the events or Tkachuk is telling the truth when he claims the hit was an accident. Most observers did not see what Maurice saw, but he has access to a number of angles and had obviously watched the hit a number of times before he opined on the seriousness of it. If Tkachuk does stay in the series as expected, he’ll go into Game 2 as the Enemy No. 1 in Winnipeg and stand as an enormous factor in the series even when he wasn’t trying to be that.
Think Chris Kreider on Carey Price in the 2014 Eastern Conference final and you get an idea of what an impact the Tkachuk hit potentially has if Scheifele can’t return.