Now that a horrendous, franchise-record seven-game losing streak is history and a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs has been secured, Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice made it sound like not a whole lot will change in the team’s approach over the final week of the regular-season schedule.
Following Friday’s practice, which saw defenceman Neal Pionk absent because of coach’s orders to rest and recover, Maurice said time and circumstance will prevent him from making too many lineup changes the rest of the way.
“The guys want to be right and feel good about their game,” was how Maurice explained all of his top-minute players not wanting any nights off.
“There’s no travel left. We’re not sure when we’re starting (the playoffs) but I can’t imagine it’s two or three days off after that either. So we have this good rhythm here. We’re at home.”
Maurice said about the only tell-tale sign of any difference in how he’ll be running the bench will be not extending the ice time of any of his front-line players.
“We still have work to do here and it’s just about cementing it; going out with one or two ideas that we want to be our prime focus and make sure we’re good. I’m not going to run anybody 23 minutes.”
But Maurice said it was his decision and not Pionk’s for the defenceman to take Friday off from practice.
“I wanted him off the ice today. He was more inclined to skate. I tried to convince him that getting him right from 98 per cent to 100 right now would be a good idea.”
If Pionk does play Saturday night against Ottawa, the Jets’ bench boss said it would be because that maximum status had been achieved.
If not, well, that would open the door for Logan Stanley or more likely Jordie Benn to get some additional playing time down the stretch.
It’s guaranteed Ville Heinola will play his second straight game and fourth of the season. And while the Jets have gone 3-0 and outscored their opposition 13-3 in the three games their 2019 first-round pick has played this season, the decision to keep him in the lineup goes beyond “good luck charm status.”
“Ville’s got a unique skill set for a defenceman. He can skate, we think he’s faster than last year so he can get to pucks now. And then he’s got a real good set of hands and good vision,” was how Maurice described the assets of his 20-year-old Finnish blue-liner.
“So we’re looking for him to move the puck. We all know playoff hockey looks completely different.”
There was the feeling Heinola would get a taste of that the other night in Calgary, but Maurice conceded the Flames did not bring the “heavy” kind of game he was anticipating.
Still, Heinola’s performance was not lost on his teammates. Andrew Copp certainly liked what he saw from the five-foot-11, 180-pound rearguard.
“I think there were a couple of times in the game, obviously he’s not the biggest guy out there, but he was putting himself in good spots and good body position where he was going up against a bigger player and wasn’t shying away by any means,” Copp said.
“His gap was right. His angles were great. He kinda knows how to figure out when a guy’s on his back. He adds a dimension back there of puck-moving. He’s going to be special.”
Heinola was a little more understated in the self-analysis of his effort in the 4-0 win over Calgary, which included 20 shifts and just a touch under 14 minutes of playing time.
“I think it was a good start for me. I had a couple of plays with the puck. But obviously, I think I can play better,” Heinola said via Zoom call following Friday’s workout.
“I feel way better on the ice. I can trust my body more. I know I can handle these guys. I know I can handle their speed. That gives me confidence.”
And that’s what Heinola and fellow rookie Logan Stanley will both need in their competition with veteran Jordie Benn to determine who gets that coveted spot on the third defence pairing for the post-season.
Heinola says his experience playing in the Finnish Pro League and the last three World Junior tournaments have taught him to take what he believes to be a productive approach to maximizing his chances.
“When you go on the ice, go hard. One hundred per cent. Then when you’re off the ice, think about something else than hockey. When I get my chance I want to show what I have and can bring to the team.”
Ehlers back on the ice?
Maurice also shared some promising news on injured forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who has been sidelined for the last five games with an upper-body injury believed to be a shoulder.
The original prognosis was that Maurice was “confident and hopeful” Ehlers would be ready to return for Game 1 of the playoffs. And while nothing has changed with regards to that timetable, Maurice said the expectation was for the Jets’ second-leading scorer to be on the ice Saturday in a non-contact jersey, but not shooting pucks.
With about 10 or 11 days to go before the anticipated start of the post-season, the to-do list for these final four games is to keep the needle moving forward from what has been accomplished since that disastrous 6-1 loss to Edmonton. And Copp pointed out that “playing defensive” would not be an accurate description of how he and his teammates intend to get themselves ready for the Oilers or Toronto in Round 1.
“Just being a little more aware and not taking as many chances when we don’t have the puck,” is how Copp explained what the mindset needs to continue to be.
And he prefers having a greater sense of urgency over playing desperate hockey to go along with added confidence in making sure the team’s game is in proper order.
“Just a little extra pep in your step. Extra battle. Make that extra play. You don’t want it to be leading to desperation where you’re kinda getting too crazy. It’s almost like an under-confidence — that something crazy has to happen for you to win,” said Copp.
“So it’s a fine line. I think you can find both, where you find that confidence while playing with that sense of urgency. That’s that blueprint we need for moving forward.”
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