Timing might not be everything on the road to a Championship, but it can play a major role. In 2019, the Tampa Bay Lightning went 62-16-4 and finished with 128 points (Calgary and Boston were second with 107 points). Tampa then lost four straight to Columbus in the opening round of the playoffs and their season ended abruptly.
Victor Hedman got injured on March 30th. He missed the final three games of the regular season and then tried to play through his injury in games one and two v. Columbus. He wasn’t close to himself.
Watch how he played this David Savard play in game one. Hedman is arguably the best defender in the NHL. Watch how he turns. He isn’t close to healthy and didn’t play in games three or four. Some will say good teams overcome injuries, and that can be true to a point, but not having your #1 D-man for the most important games of the season is a massive hurdle to overcome.
Hedman is a rarity, because he is so good. How many teams win in the playoffs when they are without their #1 D-man, who is also one of the top-three defenders in the NHL? I couldn’t think of one. His presence in the Lightning lineup allows others to flourish when they get to play second or third pairing minutes. With him out, players are asked to play roles they aren’t capable of, and it often leads to losses, especially in the playoffs when playing other competent teams.
The Winnipeg Jets announced this morning that Nikolaj Ehlers will miss the remainder of the regular season. He might play in the playoffs, but how healthy or effective will he be? He isn’t Hedman, but Ehlers is a really important player for the Jets.
He is second in points, goals and 5×5 points. He is first in 5×5 goals and first in 5×5 shots on goal with 103. Kyle Connor is second with 83. Ehlers is a major driver for the Jets’ offence at 5×5 and his loss is a major blow for Winnipeg. If he suffered this injury in January, and returned healthy in middle-to-late February, it would sting much less than it does now.
Winnipeg’s loss is Edmonton’s gain. The Oilers are battling the Jets for second place in the North and home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Jets are still a solid hockey team, but they aren’t as dangerous without Ehlers. Edmonton must take advantage of that tonight and on Wednesday.
The Jets are also without Adam Lowry. He is another important piece to their top nine. He skated this morning in a non-contact jersey and will likely miss both games against Edmonton this week. Suddenly Mark Schiefele will be asked to take more faceoffs and defensive zone starts. Key injuries are disruptive in how they force changes to your lineup and often put players in different situations.
Lowry had 20% more D-zone starts than Schiefele in their first 47 games. Lowry excelled in that role. Schiefele can do it, but how does it impact his offensive output if he is starting more in the D zone against better players? The trickle down effect is what I look for. Paul Stastny now will play centre more. Kristian Vesalainen, who has only played eight games, is now on the third line with Stastny and Mathieu Perrault. Will they produce as well as the Copp-Lowry-Appleton line did in that role? Highly unlikely.
The Oilers have injuries of their own, with Zack Kassian and Jujhar Khaira. Khaira was having a solid season in the third line centre spot and on the PK. Ryan McLeod makes his NHL debut tonight and will fill Khaira’s spot at 5×5. Khaira is tied with Jesse Puljujarvi for the third most points at 5×5 over the past 10 weeks. Expecting McLeod to chip in that much offensively is asking a lot.
No offence to Khaira and Kassian, but their injuries aren’t as big of a loss as Ehlers and Lowry, and in the ruthless world of professional sports the Oilers will try to ensure Winnipeg feels the pain of the unfortunate timing of their injuries.
Teams can try to build depth in case of injuries, but injuries to key players in the final weeks of the regular season or the playoffs is often too much of a hurdle to overcome.
Kahun – McDavid – Puljujarvi
RNH – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Shore – McLeod – Archibald
Neal – Haas – Chiasson
Nurse – Barrie
Kulikov – Larsson
Jones – Bear
Some new line combinations with Kahun on McDavid’s wing; Ryan McLeod makes his NHL debut between Archibald and Shore; while Dmitry Kulikov makes his Oilers debut in a defence pairing with Adam Larsson. Edmonton’s top forwards have dominated the Jets this season. McDavid, Draisaitl and RNH have 13 goals combined, while Ehlers, Connor, Wheeler and Schiefele have eight.
Winnipeg’s blueline has combined for 1-9-10, while Darnell Nurse (1-7-8) and Tyson Barrie (1-5-6) have 14 points between them. Edmonton’s skilled players have simply been better than Winnipeg’s thus far.
Connor – Dubois – Wheeler
Copp– Scheifele – Appleton
Vesalainen – Stastny– Perreault
Harkins – Thompson – Lewis
Forbort – Pionk
Benn – Demelo
Schiefele with Copp and Appleton tells me that is the line that will face McDavid as Schiefele takes Lowry’s spot between those two.
Suddenly the Jets’ offensive depth has taken a major blow.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…
After missing Saturday’s game due to a head injury, forward Adam Lowry skated in a non-contact jersey during Monday’s practice and will be held out of the lineup once again as a precaution. While Lowry is expected to return to action in the near future, teammate Nikolaj Ehlers isn’t expected to suit up anytime soon, as he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last game against the Maple Leafs and likely won’t be back on the ice until the playoffs begin.
With both Lowry and Ehlers unavailable Monday, the coaching staff has been forced to shake up the forward lines, moving Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton up to the top line with Scheifele. The club’s newly-formed second line now features Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler. As for the third line, veteran Paul Stastny returns to center alongside Mathieu Perreault and Kristian Vesalainen, who hasn’t played since Feb. 17.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Edmonton has another sluggish first period, but rebounds in the final 40 minutes and wins their fifth in a row over the Jets with a 4-2 victory.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid picks up two points. He has 15 points in seven games against Winnipeg this season. He scored two points in six of the games and had three in another. He’s been incredibly consistent against them.
N0T-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: James Neal scores his first goal this season against a team not named the Ottawa Senators. It is also his 20th career goal against the Jets.
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