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Josh Morrissey is officially back — and not a moment too soon for a Winnipeg Jets team hoping for big things this spring.
Morrissey will return to his familiar spot on the top defence pairing with Jacob Trouba when Winnipeg opens the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday night at home against the St. Louis Blues. He missed the final 20 regular-season games after suffering a shoulder injury in late February.
“It’s a long road, every player that goes through an injury knows that. First couple weeks are pretty tough, but after that you just get back into the swing of trying to do everything you can to get back ready to play. Back on the ice obviously for the last 10 days or so now, two weeks. Happy to be feeling good and back out here in full contact and ready to go,” Morrissey said following Monday’s practice at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Morrissey said he has no concerns about being physically ready for the grind of the playoffs. But he admits the hit that knocked him out, from Vinnie Hinostroza, took him by surprise.
“It’s kind of funny how sometimes you take hits and block shots and things like that, and sometimes it’s a pretty bad pain and it goes away pretty fast. Unfortunately that one obviously didn’t go away as fast as I thought it might when I went down the tunnel. I was hoping to come back and play in a few minutes. It obviously was more severe than I hoped it was. That’s all part of it I guess. It was definitely tough,” said Morrissey.
The Jets stumbled down the stretch, but getting Morrissey back is clearly cause for optimism.
“He’s one of our best guys back there. He does so much good playing against the other team’s best players. We’ve missed him a ton,” captain Blake Wheeler said Monday.
“He’s a phenomenal player. He makes things look so easy and he’s so smooth out there. I think he’ll give us a little added confidence to have him back. He fits right in with this group, so we’re excited for him,” added goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Nathan Beaulieu was picked up at the trade deadline the following day and immediately went from being a healthy scratch with the Buffalo Sabres to Trouba’s partner.
“Bo did a fantastic job when he was in there. I don’t know if he’s coming out or what’s going on. But I really enjoyed playing with him. But Josh brings his own element to the game. His ability to skate, he’s elusive, he can make moves in the D-zone, break the puck out — he’s got that extra part to his game that not a lot of guys have,” said Trouba.
Beaulieu had five assists and was a plus-five in 18 games, missing two more with an injury. Overall, the Jets went 10-9-1 without Morrissey.
“(Beaulieu’s) been great. It’s never super easy going to a new team and jumping into a new D pairing or anything like that. He’s done a great job. Obviously we’ve had injuries on the back end this year, like most teams, and different guys have to come in and play different roles, different amount of minutes. Everyone has really had to step up at some point. I thought our guys have done a great job, and Beaulieu has done a great job. It’s been nice to have him,” said Morrissey.
Head coach Paul Maurice also raved about the play of Beaulieu, and wouldn’t say he automatically comes out of the lineup with Morrissey’s return. Might he consider moving Beaulieu down the lineup, perhaps for someone like Dmitry Kulikov?
“I’ve really liked Nathan’s game. He’s played really hard and helped us win some games, so he’s not an easy or obvious out,” said Maurice.
As for Morrissey, the biggest challenge will be getting right up to playoff speed after an extended absence.
“Over the course of the year it ramps up and ramps up. And come night one of the playoffs it’s going to be a whole other level. But you try and draw on the experiences you’ve had as a player, looking back at last season’s playoffs, the three rounds we played, and some of those big games, as well,” said Morrissey.
“The emotion’s going to be high. When you get on the ice in Game 1 of the playoffs, the emotion goes to another level that you haven’t seen all year. That adrenaline is firing. So I think it’ll be more so trying to keep it simple, not trying to do too much. Just try to get back into the rhythm of things as fast as possible… falling on the little details of your game that make any players successful.”
Maurice doesn’t plan to ease Morrissey back in.
“Probably keep him under 30, unless it’s overtime,” Maurice joked. “The fitness for him is not an issue. He’s been able to skate, and skate hard, and he has. He’s been knocking on the door there at the end of that road trip wanting to play, but we wanted to make sure he’s right. So, he’s back full contact for a week now and feeling real strong.”
There was some mixed news Monday when it came to a couple other injures.
Energy winger Brandon Tanev will not play in Game 1, although Maurice wouldn’t rule him out for the rest of the series. Tanev was slashed last Tuesday in Minnesota by the Wild’s Eric Staal and suffered a finger injury.
He has a career-high 14 goals this season, forms a key part of the shutdown checking line, leads the team in hits and is a vital penalty killer. However, Maurice said he’s been comforted by the play of Par Lindholm, who has stepped in for Tanev rather seamlessly.
“Par’s been outstanding in his game. So, technically in terms of his positioning on the ice but his compete level on pucks. And when you get a guy like that, a really quiet man, every time he does something good on the ice the bench gets really excited. So he brings something beyond fine play. The guys are cheering for him, he blocks shots, finishing hits, makes good plays with the puck. So, it’s a really nice find for us,” Maurice said.
The Jets got Lindholm at the trade deadline from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Nic Petan. Lindholm notched his first point with Winnipeg in Saturday night’s regular-season finale against the Arizona Coyotes, playing on line with Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic.
Backup goalie Laurent Brossoit appears ready to go, participating in a full practice session Monday. He’s been out since suffering a lower-body injury on March 21 in Vegas.
Of course, the Jets would prefer they don’t see Brossoit play a single second in the playoffs, because that would likely mean Connor Hellebuyck is cruising along just nicely and doesn’t need any help.
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