By The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele went into the North Division final expecting that Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault would be the one trying to shut him down, not the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
The Winnipeg Jets forward received a four-game suspension for his crushing blow on Montreal forward Jake Evans in the Canadiens’ series-opening 5-3 victory. Evans suffered a concussion and left the ice on a stretcher after being hit by Scheifele following an empty-net goal with under a minute to play.
Scheifele could only watch as Montreal swept the best-of-seven series to end Winnipeg’s campaign. Scheifele will serve the final game of the suspension to start next season.
“Obviously it’s crushing that my season was ended by that,” Scheifele told reporters during a videoconference Wednesday. “I thought I was going to be tried to be shut down by Phillip Danault and it was the department of player safety that shut me down so that definitely sucks.
“But that’s life, that’s what we all deal with. We’ve dealt with that all year, society in general . . . that makes us stronger, that makes us better people, that makes us more well-rounded human beings.
“You feel pretty helpless when your team is out there battling and you’re watching from the stands. But the way you handle setbacks is what defines us so that’s the mentality I’m taking. All you can do is keep working on your game and be ready for the next year.”
Scheifele maintained his belief the suspension was “excessive.”
“Obviously I had my chance to speak my piece in the hearing,” he said. “I don’t know how much was actually absorbed by (NHL).
“At the end of the day you regret the outcome of it. You never want to see a guy hurt and I’m a guy that respects this game and respects players. But at the end of the day I was trying to negate a goal. I would’ve loved an answer from (NHL) of what would’ve been a better thing to do because I’ve replayed the thing over and over in my mind and the only real thing is if I gave up on my teammates on that play and just didn’t backcheck.
The loss of Scheifele was huge for Winnipeg. The 28-year-old Kitchener, Ont., native was the Jets’ scoring leader with 63 points (21 goals, 42 assists) in 56 regular-season games with just 12 penalty minutes and was tied for the team playoff scoring lead when suspended.
“It’s over and done with, I’m not going to continue to cry over it,” Scheifele said. “It’s the decision they made. I still believe it was excessive, I still believe they knocked me out of the series. I don’t even get a chance to play with my teammates and battle with my teammates in the series for a guy with a clean record. I’m going to stop talking before I get fined for something like that so I’ll just leave it as it is.”
The playoff elimination was a bitter ending to what was a solid campaign for Winnipeg. Many prognostications had the club missing the North Division playoffs but the Jets (30-23-3) finished third in the standings before sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the post-season.
“We proved people wrong and we want to continue to prove people wrong,” Scheifele said. “We don’t get a lot of respect in the grand scheme of things.
“Everyone wants the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens to be going on, no one wants the Winnipeg Jets to do anything but that’s what Winnipeg is made of. Our community is made up of hard-working people that grind for every inch and we’re that team that wants to grind for every inch and prove people wrong on a day-to-day-basis. That’s who the Winnipeg Jets are.”
It marked the fourth straight season and fifth time in eight years that Winnipeg has reached the NHL playoffs under head coach Paul Maurice. Scheifele was among a host of Jets players who publicly voiced their support for Maurice on Wednesday.
“I have full support in Paul Maurice and I know I’m not alone there,” Scheifele said. “There’s a lot of guys that love him.
“He’s a fantastic coach, he’s definitely one of the good ones in this league and he definitely has my full support.”
Ditto for captain Blake Wheeler.
“I think the guys have a ton of respect for him because he’s, first of all, a good person, good man and treats us as people,” Wheeler said. “In some respects the way Paul handled our team this year was almost as good as he’s ever been.
“I felt a lot of the decisions he made — whether it be line combinations or what have you — were right on. His feel for the team was really good this year. ”
Veteran forward Nate Thompson, who signed a one-year deal with Winnipeg last October, also praised Maurice.
“I have a great relationship with Paul and it started right from the beginning and I think every guy on the team would say the same thing,” Thompson said. “He has a true belief in our team and did right from the start.
“I think you’re going to see a good response from this group next year. I don’t know if I’m going to be here or not but I can tell you that just from the way Paul sends his message to the guys and letting guys know what to expect from him. I think he’s done a great job and there’s a reason why he’s been here so long.”
Thompson said he believes Winnipeg has the talent to win.
“I think you’ve got to give credit to Montreal, they were extremely hard to play against because there wasn’t a lot of room on the ice,” he said. “It wasn’t like they were running us through the wall but they were on top of us all the time.
“The way we played against Edmonton I think we were hard to play against, there was no free ice out there. You look at championship teams sometimes it can take some time, sometimes it can take losses in the playoff round, especially like we did, for teams to get better and move forward. I think there’s a group here that knows that, realizes that and knows what it takes.”