Blake Wheeler will finally miss a hockey game — several, in fact — owing to a knock to the face he sustained Monday night.
The Winnipeg captain is staying put while the rest of the Jets’ troops cope with a five-game eastern road trip, which begins tonight against the Montreal Canadiens.
Wheeler is in concussion protocol, although he has yet to be diagnosed with one, and his absence from the lineup is listed as ‘indefinite.’
He was caught by an elbow from ornery Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk late in the second period at Bell MTS Place and was left with a bright red scrape, high on his left cheek. The durable 34-year-old played the rest of the contest, while Tkachuk was assessed a two-minute penalty on the play.
But the seriousness of the wound became far more apparent when Wheeler arrived downtown for practice Wednesday, explained head coach Paul Maurice.
“He took the elbow last game, was fine, felt good, started to feel a little off (Tuesday) and then (Wednesday) started not feeling great. The word’s concussion (but) we don’t have a diagnosis on that, yet, but we’re going to treat it as it is because we’re obviously really careful with these things,” Maurice told reporters, following an hour-long skate before the club boarded a plane bound for La Belle Province.
“We don’t want him flying in and out until we know exactly what’s going to happen here. So, he’s out, I guess I’ll say indefinitely until we get this cleared up.”
Maurice was asked if the 13-year veteran could rejoin the squad during the trip, provided he was medically cleared.
“The rules would be that he would have to fly privately, is my understanding. We wouldn’t be able to bring him in commercially. But we haven’t thought about that. We don’t want him on a flight, we don’t want him in the air on an airplane until we know (the diagnosis),” he said.
The unforeseen break snaps the Plymouth, Minn., product’s consecutive game-played streak at 194. He’s only missed one in the last 438 games, and that came in Montreal, too. Three years ago, Maurice rested Wheeler, centres Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry, defencemen Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba and goalie Connor Hellebuyck as the team played its final road game of the 2017-18 campaign.
Wheeler has suited up for all but one of Winnipeg’s last 438 outings, and has been sidelined just six times in the 10 seasons — 732 games — since the franchise moved north from Atlanta.
Former Jets assistant-coach Todd Woodcroft said he witnessed the fortitude of the 2004 first-round pick (Boston Bruins) over four seasons and marvelled at his ability to lead — even while banged up — by example.
“I’d be very surprised if he felt 100 per cent for most of the games he’s played. He’s a hard, physical player. and when you play that brand of hockey like Blake does, you’re going to have sore wrists, sore knuckles, sore body from taking crosschecks to the back and getting drilled down the boards. But he never takes a day off,” said Woodcroft, who left the Jets a year ago to run the men’s hockey program at University of Vermont, a NCAA Division I team out of the Hockey East conference.
“His dedication to being a professional surpasses almost anyone I’ve seen. He is the consummate professional. His body comes second to the jersey. So, for him to be out it will be a new thing for all those guys who’ve played all those games with Blake.”
Hockey fans in these parts have likely seen enough of the offspring of former Jets 1.0 sniper Keith Tkachuk. His oldest son, Matthew, took out Mark Scheifele last summer in the playoff bubble and now Brady’s actions have shelved the resident iron man, who has 10 goals and 32 points in 39 games.
But Maurice had little to say about the errant elbow in the Jets 4-3 victory. The 21-year-old Sens alternate captain had his back to Wheeler along the boards, lifted his wing and delivered a blow.
“I looked at it, it’s a penalty. I’ll leave that rest a minute. I don’t think I have another opinion on that one,” said Maurice.
Left-shooting winger Andrew Copp, in the midst of a career season, will play his off-wing in place of Wheeler, joining centre Pierre-Luc Dubois and left-winger Paul Stastny.
Copp, who has already posted career highs for goals (12) and points (30), is one of Maurice’s most trusted performers, in all zones.
“We’re gonna move Andrew Copp into a position he hasn’t played before but it’s also something Andrew and I talked about a month ago, two months ago. We don’t have a lot of lefties that can play the right, and finding one who can, he’s had some time there over his career,” said Maurice. “I got lots of confidence in his ability to read the game from that side of the ice. He’s generated from that side of the ice, so we’re gonna give it a run.”
Copp’s promotion creates a domino effect. Mathieu Perreault will skate with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, while Jansen Harkins enters the lineup for the first time since Feb. 19 and will play with Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis. Harkins has yet to record a point in 12 previous appearances.
“It’s funny the way things happen. He and I talked on the ice three days ago about how unusual this year has been for Harkins, (Ville) Heinola, (Sami) Niku, these guys that are right on the cusp of playing… I just gave him the old, ‘Hang in there, work hard.’ He’s been good about that. This guy has a good work ethic,” said Maurice. “I’m expecting him to come in with lots of legs and lots of energy. He’s playing with the two right guys. It’s a very predictable game that Thompson and Lewis play.
“I think he’s going to be good. I think he’s going to get right in there and you’re not going to see a lot of signs of rust. What he’s going to bring to that line — speed, physicality, if he can get that shot off, he’s got a big shot — those things you can do even if you’ve been off a while.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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