Practice time at a premium

They say practice makes perfect. But for the Winnipeg Jets, finding the time to do just that will be a near-impossible task as they enter what will be a very important second half of the NHL season.

Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry admitted earlier this week that time for on-ice workouts outside of morning skates before games will come at a premium the rest of the year. In fact, Lowry went as far as to say Thursday would be the last full-team practice for quite some time, maybe even the remainder of the season.

“The big thing is we will be consistent that we won’t be practising,” Lowry said. “The next day I see our group, outside of (Thursday), on the ice will probably be after the Seattle game.”

The Seattle game is set for Thursday, Feb. 17, the final game of a stretch that will see the Jets play three times in four nights. The team would usually take that next day off, at least when it comes to hitting the ice.

But because there’s a day game Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers at 3 p.m., meaning no morning skate, players have asked to skate Friday. But even that will likely be an optional skate.

“I know it’s (three games in four nights), but these guys like to skate the day before afternoon games,” added Lowry.

Starting with back-to-back road games against the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators Friday and Saturday night, the Jets will play their final 39 regular-season games over a 77-day stretch. That equates to a game every second day, or less, if you want to get really technical.

That stretch will feel even tougher for Winnipeg, when you consider how much pressure is on the team to perform.

At 19-17-7, the Jets are nine points out of the playoffs and with many pundits suggesting a 95-point threshold to make it to the post-season, that means Winnipeg will have to win 25 of their remaining 39 games.

The reason behind the game-heavy schedule is due to the postponement of seven games in December and January, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and health protocols limiting seating in Canadian venues during that time. That leaves little space to schedule practices, especially when you factor in time for rest and recovery after road trips and mandated days off, per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.

It also begs the question of just how important these workouts really are.

While routine practices are commonplace for lower levels of the game, from minor hockey to elite junior leagues, they aren’t nearly as regular in the NHL. And while that definitely doesn’t suggest they aren’t important, the damage of losing them just isn’t as notable.

“It kind of depends on the time of year. Whether you have a new coach, whether it’s early in the season, whether you have a week off between games,” Jets veteran forward Paul Stastny said Thursday. “But by this time of the year, usually after the all-star break, you’re not practising a lot. Just because you’re playing so many games, guys are beat up.”

<p>Jets head coach Dave Lowry admitted earlier this week that time for on-ice workouts outside of morning skates before games will come at a premium the rest of the year.</p>
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Jets head coach Dave Lowry admitted earlier this week that time for on-ice workouts outside of morning skates before games will come at a premium the rest of the year.

Stastny said in order to compensate for the lost ice time, players will often be asked to watch more film. An added focus is also on recovery and coming up with different ways to quickly heal from game to game.

As for instruction, Stastny said a lot of improvement is individual. That means identifying ways to tighten each player’s game, which doesn’t require having everyone out on the ice to achieve.

“You don’t really need the practice at this time of year because you know what you’re doing. The video is to help fine-tune things systems-wise,” Stastny said. “Usually, the stuff that goes right or goes wrong is more individual mistakes and you can fix that.”

There are some exceptions. Those include when a team is looking to install a completely new system, whether that be in a specific zone on the ice or on special teams. Players coming off injury also like to be on the ice with their teammates in order to experience some contact.

Lowry has made some minor adjustments to the Jets style of play since taking over in mid-December. But much of that was taken care of in recent weeks when Winnipeg had nothing but time to practice, during the stretch where all those games were being postponed.

“These guys are elite in their preparation and how they look after themselves. Rest becomes critical,” Lowry said. “Games, and you see how heavy the game was (Tuesday vs. Minnesota) and how physical it is, we probably expect the exact same thing here on the weekend. It’s taxing on the body, so if we have days, we need to have players off the ice, that’s what we will do.”

While players such as Stastny are well equipped to handle the challenges that come with a hectic game-heavy schedule, there are others such as rookie Cole Perfetti. The 20-year-old is still adjusting to the NHL grind, having played just 13 games with the Jets, all this season.

Because of some extraordinary circumstances owing to COVID-19, Perfetti was permitted to spend most of last season with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League. His time spent with the Moose, given how the AHL schedule is run, with games seemingly every night, should help with what’s to come as he continues to progress at the NHL level.

“It’s different with the travel and stuff like that, going from city to city, and that’s just something you have to learn to deal with in how to take care of your body. I think that’s going to take time,” Perfetti said. “Watching the guys like Stastny, Wheeler, and Scheifele, to see how they take care of their body and how they prepare themselves for the next day. It’s not easy going from time zone to time zone, late planes, and stuff like that.”

He added: “It’s going to be different. It’s going to be hard. But obviously the experience with the back-to-backs last year and lots of games in a short amount of time, it’s going to help with the schedule coming up. I don’t think anything is going to prepare me for what we’re going to face. This is going to be a lot of hockey in a short amount of time.”

FOLIGNO SUSPENDED TWO GAMES: Minnesota Wild forward Marcus Foligno has been suspended two games for kneeing Winnipeg Jets forward Adam Lowry near the head during a fight in the Jets 2-0 home win Tuesday night.

The incident occurred near the midway mark of the third period, during what was the second fight of the night between Foligno and Lowry. Foligno was assessed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Lowry said after the game that he didn’t appreciate what happened but downplayed the incident by saying it was a result of being in the heat of the moment. Foligno will surrender US$31,000 in salary, which is donated to the Player’s Emergency Assistance Fund.

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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