By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — Prior to puck drop between the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday, a young fan got to suit up, carry a Jets flag and skate around the ice with his hockey heroes.
As the boy made his way behind the net wearing his goalie equipment, he lost his balance and fell. After he got up and continued his laps, Jets all-star defenceman Josh Morrissey skated by the youngster and gently tapped him on the back.
It was a kind gesture by one of the team’s leaders, who would end up leaving the game early in the first period after suffering a lower-body injury that will sideline him for the rest of the series.
Vegas leads the best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series 2-1 after Saturday’s 5-4 double-overtime victory. Game 4 is in Winnipeg on Monday.
For Morrissey’s teammates, his injury was a case of a bad thing happening to a good person — and a void that will be hard to fill.
Defenceman Neal Pionk logged a team-high 41 minutes and eight seconds of ice time after the Jets were down to five defencemen. He contributed a trio of assists.
“His mentality. His swagger. His vocal leadership on the bench and in the locker room. All that stuff will be missed,” Pionk told reporters Sunday when asked to describe Morrissey’s qualities.
“And like I said, it will be a next-man-up mentality. We’ll have to take a little bit more from everybody because I don’t think one guy can fill those shoes. He’s been our best player all year, so we’ll have to pick up that slack.”
Morrissey was injured after he hit knee-on-knee with Vegas blue-liner Zach Whitecloud during his first shift of the game. After taking part in a power play, he went to the bench appearing to favour his right leg and then limped down the tunnel at 4:34 and didn’t return.
The Calgary product entered the playoffs after a career-best regular season.
The alternate captain set a franchise record for most points by a defenceman with 76 points in 78 games (16 goals and 60 assists). He also finished second in scoring among NHL defencemen. He had one assist in the series against Vegas.
The Jets only had a few players skate Sunday but others came to the rink, including Morrissey.
“It’s never easy to lose your difference maker, a guy that has been driving the bus for us all year,” veteran defenceman Nate Schmidt said. “He does so many things for you on the ice as well as off.
“The first guy to be there today and yesterday when things were starting to ramp up just speaks to the guy that he is and he’s going to be around the group as much as he can.”
Winnipeg head coach Rick Bowness said he talked to Morrissey Saturday night, but hadn’t yet spoken to him on Sunday.
“I got a late text from him (Saturday) night. He’s pretty bummed,” Bowness said.
“He knows the importance of his presence on the ice and in the room and he’s a competitive guy. He wants to play, so he’s pretty bummed out right now.”
He said the 28-year-old, who’s spent eight seasons with the Jets organization, will be more than welcome to help the team in whatever way he can.
“He’ll be hanging around, and encouraging, and we want his presence felt around the room,” Bowness said. “Now we need other guys, obviously, to step up, which they did a phenomenal job of (Saturday) night, all five of those guys.”
The Jets will call up another defenceman as insurance and will have seven during warmups before Monday’s game, he added.
Winnipeg was down 4-1 heading into the third period Saturday and sent it to overtime when Adam Lowry scored with 22 seconds remaining in regulation. Michael Amadio delivered the game-winning goal for Vegas 3:40 into double overtime.