LAS VEGAS – A rash of untimely injuries to some top players has forced Jets head coach Rick Bowness to get creative for Thursday’s must-win Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Two lineup decisions have already been made. Defenceman Josh Morrissey (lower body) is out for the series and forward Mark Scheifele (upper body) will miss at least one game.
However, the outlook seems brighter for forward Nikolaj Ehlers (upper body) to potentially make his series debut at T-Mobile Arena.
“He got through practice fine,” Bowness said Wednesday. “We had him doing some pushing and shoving. We’ll see how he handles this.
“We’ll see how he feels tomorrow morning and we’ll make the call tomorrow.”
Ehlers, who averaged nearly a point a game in the regular season, would provide an immediate boost to a team that has lost three straight.
“I’m a huge fan of his game and what he can bring to our team,” said Jets blueliner Nate Schmidt. “As a defenceman, I love how he opens it up for us.
“He creates a lot more space with his playmaking ability and his ability just to push things back and give more time and space to other guys on the ice.”
Bowness said if Ehlers does return, he’ll be slotted in on the power play.
“I want to be out there to help the team and I haven’t been able to do that,” Ehlers said. “Obviously if I were to be playing tomorrow, I’d be all in.”
Despite being in elimination game territory, the Jets were a loose bunch at times during Wednesday’s brisk 45-minute practice session.
Schmidt said the approach can help minimize pressure.
“We’re a lot more crisp when guys at practice are into each other a little bit,” he said. “The back and forth (between) forwards and (defencemen) is always a good indicator of how the guys are going that day and today is a good example.”
Morrissey, one of the team’s top puck movers, went down early in Game 3. Scheifele, the Jets’ top scorer with 42 goals in the regular season, was forced to exit a few minutes into Game 4.
“It’s hard, it doesn’t make it any easier,” Schmidt said. “Everybody has to (get) over some kind of adversity (in) every playoff run that anyone has ever been on. We’re in it right now.”
Forward Morgan Barron, who needed 75 stitches after taking a skate to the face in Game 1, used his regular visor at practice. He has been using a full cage for game play since the incident.
After splitting the first two games in Las Vegas, the top-seeded Golden Knights needed double overtime for a 5-4 road win in Game 3.
Vegas also overcame the ‘whiteout’ atmosphere at Canada Life Centre for a 4-2 win in Game 4.
“You don’t win all of it in one game, you can’t will yourself to a series win in one game,” Schmidt said. “I think that’s the way that you have to look at this.”
Winnipeg controlled the opening game of the first-round series but the Golden Knights’ stars seemed to wake up after the first intermission of Game 2.
Chandler Stephenson leads Vegas with six points in the series, one more than captain Mark Stone. William Karlsson, Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo have four points apiece.
Neal Pionk leads the Jets with seven points (all assists) but is a minus-six overall. Blake Wheeler has five points and Adam Lowry has scored four goals.
If the Jets win Game 5, the series would return to Canada Life Centre on Saturday. Bowness said Scheifele had a “limited range of motion” but was not ruled out for a potential Game 6.
If the series goes the distance, the Golden Knights would host Game 7 on Monday.
“The games have been close so we’re not thinking ahead at all here,” said Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy. “We’ve got a game to play. We have to keep building our game.”
Vegas beat Winnipeg in five games when the teams met in the 2018 Western Conference final. The Golden Knights lost the Stanley Cup final to Washington that year and haven’t been back since.
“It’s going to be a great crowd and it’s going to be an emotional atmosphere,” Schmidt said of Game 5. “They’re going to be amped up as well. But I think that we’re the desperate team. We’re going to come in and (say), ‘This is it. You have to get a win.’
“There’s no other way to put it. You’ve got to come up with a win or else.”