Injury-plagued Jets gear up for Knights

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — No starting goalie, top defenseman or No. 1 center?

No problem.

Displaying depth that perhaps even they didn’t know they had, the Winnipeg Jets knocked off the top team in the NHL on Tuesday night, with a 3-1 decision over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Bell MTS Place.

It was their first game without top-pairing defenseman Jacob Trouba, who is out six to eight weeks with an ankle injury suffered just before the All-Star break and their 13th without center Mark Scheifele, who resumed practicing in a non-contact jersey a few days ago after injuring his shoulder in late December. No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck, meanwhile, watched the festivities from the bench.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who had two assists in the victory, told The Winnipeg Free Press that it showed the Jets can play with the best.

“We’ve been confident in that, especially at home. It’s a little bit tough because we’re both coming out of a little bit of a break. But we still view it as a measuring stick to see where we’re at. It just shows, if we play that game, we give ourselves a chance to win,” he said.

Things aren’t going to get any easier on Thursday when the Vegas Golden Knights, the No. 2 team in the league with 70 points, one behind Tampa Bay, come to town.

The first-year Knights, still the surprise story of the year, defeated the Calgary Flames 4-2 on Tuesday, a game in which they erased a 2-1 late third-period deficit with three goals in 53 seconds.

With a record of 33-12-4, they have equaled the best-ever first-year win total by an NHL team, tying the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks, which had twin 33-win seasons in 1993-94.

“It’s great for the franchise,” coach Gerard Gallant told The Las Vegas Review-Journal. “But there’s a lot of hockey left to play. The guys kept working and we got a little lucky. But it’s a big two points and a great way to start the road trip.”

By comparison, the Jets won 20 games during their inaugural season in 1979-80, after they had been allowed to protect two skaters from its WHA championship winning roster the year before and subsequently losing most of its core in a dispersal draft. The Golden Knights have benefitted from the most favorable — and fair — terms of entry into the NHL in league history. (Every other team could protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie or a total of eight forwards and defensemen and one goalie and Vegas was allowed to pick one unprotected player from each.)

The Jets got some good news from sick bay on Wednesday when defenseman Dmitri Kulikov was a full participant in practice, a week after suffering a minor concussion.

Coach Paul Maurice told the Free Press it was encouraging to see Scheifele at the same skate “moving pretty darn well.”

“But he’ll stay where he is for I think at least another week before we start banging him around for a little bit. But he’s on track, so we’re positive there,” he said.