– Dustin Byfuglien
will be out for the next 2-4 weeks and Bryan Little
is expected to miss the front half of the upcoming four-game road trip, Head Coach Paul Maurice announced Friday.
Byfuglien (upper body) and Little (undisclosed) are two of only six Jets players to have played all 65 games this season, but that streak will come to an end on Saturday against the Central Division-leading Nashville Predators (6:00pm CT, Hockey Night in Canada).
Both players were injured in Wednesday’s game against the Ottawa Senators.
“(Byfuglien) is at the top end of the league in terms of what he can do physically and what he can do with the puck,” Maurice said following practice at MTS Centre. “We’re going to miss him. He’s a force back there, for sure.”
As a result of the injuries and with Andrew Ladd off on a maintenance day, TJ Galiardi was up on the wing in place of the captain, while Paul Postma took a regular turn at forward before Mark Stuart left practice with a gash under the eye. (Stuart took a puck off the face, but after a few stitches, the defenceman looked no worse for wear as the team departed for the American Midwest.)
Postma will not be at centre when the puck drops tomorrow night, however. The Jets have recalled Eric O’Dell from the St. John’s IceCaps.
And so, an overcrowded infirmary grows larger: Mathieu Perreault, Matt Halischuk, Ben Chiarot, Grant Clitsome, Byfuglien and Little.
“Everybody’s got to add something,” Maurice said. “Your parts might not be as talented as they once were, but some can be as good. I know it’s cliché, but it truly is an opportunity for others. You’ve got 23 small businesses in there. They’re going to get a chance to play [more] and they’re excited about it.”
Maurice will look to Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers to help fill the void on the back end by increasing their minutes considerably.
“If we’re going to suffer an injury to our group, having one go down on right D means we’ve still got enough minutes,” Maurice said. “Jacob Trouba wants to play 24 minutes – he’s good in that range – and Tyler clearly can. I have no problem with Jake and Tyler even going north of that.”
Blake Wheeler, who recently returned from a brief stint in the sick bay (lower body), agreed with the coach’s assessment, adding that he’s “encouraged” by how the team has handled these types of situations in the past.
“It’s almost weird when we’re all healthy and have to deal with a full lineup,” he said with a laugh. “It never gets easier, but we’re accustomed to it. … We’ve been dealing with adversity all year. We rise to the challenge whenever we’re forced to.”
So here it is: Four games and against four tough teams, eight days, thousands of kilometres and the pressure of a playoff race to boot. It begins tomorrow against the Predators, before moving on to St. Louis, Florida and Tampa Bay before the team returns home on Mar. 15.
No one said it was going to be easy. The Jets currently hold the second of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference with 76 points, two up on the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who have now won back-to-back games and seven of their last 10.
The Predators, meanwhile, have hit a bit of a rough patch – uncharacteristic of the team that was leading the league for much of the season – losing five in a row, including a couple at home where they’ve been so dominant (26-6-1).
Saturday’s game will be the fifth and final meeting between these two teams this season, with the Jets having secured only one victory to this point, a 3-1 decision back on Nov. 4 at MTS Centre. In their previous head-to-head matchup back on Feb. 12, Pekka Rinne stood tall, making 34 saves
to lead the Predators to a 3-1 win.
“We’ve had some good looks on him, but he’s played great all year,” Wheeler, who had a game-high six shots on goal that night, said of the all-star netminder.
Myers and Drew Stafford made their Jets debuts that night, 24 hours after a blockbuster trade that sent Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian to Buffalo.
“They’re going to try and send a message our way to try and get back on track, but we’re in the exact same position,” Stafford said. “We’re in playoff mode. We’re desperate for these points, so I expect a pretty good game. … We were a little undisciplined the last time we played these guys, so if keep that to a minimum and are solid in the neutral zone, we should be OK.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com