Game One of Winnipeg’s best-of-five Qualifying Round matchup with the Calgary Flames did not leave the Jets with much hope. Not only losing the game by a score of 4-1, but the boys-in-blue also lost forwards Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton to injury in the Saturday evening contest.
Scheifele’s injury – which came as a direct result of a check by Matthew Tkachuk – drew the attention of many over the weekend, as members of the Jets (including head coach Paul Maurice) spoke publicly on Tkachuk’s apparent intentions on the play.
With Scheifele going down early in the first period, and power-play specialist Laine leaving in the final frame with an upper-body injury, Winnipeg quickly saw its window of playoff opportunity shrink.
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The second game of the qualifier featured a totally revamped Jets lineup, with Jansen Harkins, Gabriel Bourque and Logan Shaw drawing into the places of injured forwards Scheifele, Laine, and Appleton. Andrew Copp slotted into Winnipeg’s top-line center role while being joined by Nikolaj Ehlers on the team’s No. 1 power-play unit.
It didn’t take long for the changes to take effect. Just 7:18 into the game, Harkins collected an Adam Lowry shovel pass and capitalized on the partial break with a perfectly placed wrist shot that beat Calgary’s Cam Talbot top-shelf. Scoring with the ease of a seasoned playoff veteran, the goal was actually the first postseason tally of Harkins’ young career – one that did not even boast a single playoff game played prior to Monday afternoon.
“You obviously want to make a difference,” Harkins said following the Jets’ victory. “A lot of nerves and just excitement to get in there today. The last thing you want to see is guys on your team go down, some of our top guys. But I just tried to step in and do my job out there and just tried to help the team any way I could. Obviously I got a great break in the first, and I’m happy it went in.”
That ‘break’ very well may have been the first of Harkins’ young career. Having just played 29 games with the Jets this season, the undrafted forward has “put in as much work as anyone” to get a stranglehold of a roster spot, according to coach Maurice.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a player that has been given less opportunity and stayed in the fight, and competed as hard as this guy has,” Maurice said post-game. “Like, he had no chance of making our team. He had a good camp, but he’s not a first overall pick, so he doesn’t have 10 guys pounding the table for him to be given that chance. He’s been given nothing here. But what he did was he forced an opportunity.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound winger – who had been splitting time between the ECHL’s Jacksonville Icemen and the AHL’s Manitoba Moose just two seasons back – put up 15 goals and 31 points in 70 games for the Moose in 2018-19, before exploding for seven goals and 31 points in just 30 AHL games to start this past season, prior to his recall.
“With the Moose, there was no choice but to call him up. And then he gets in the lineup and he gets into practice, he works so hard that you just have to play him,” Maurice continued. “He just catches your eye. I think what you have with Hark is a guy who’s going to get into the National Hockey League, and he’s probably not going to get out for 14 years. He understands the value of opportunity, and he’s earned that opportunity every time he steps on the ice. He didn’t get one shift, one look, one game that he didn’t completely earn.”
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Maurice recalls Harkins’ 2019-20 training camp quite vividly, citing a story of the youngster’s persistence, perseverance and high compete-level – something that the veteran coach will not soon forget.
“I remember sending him down at the end of training camp thinking to myself, ‘this guy has done almost everything he possibly can for himself’,” Maurice reflected. “I’m not saying he was ready to play in the NHL, but he was bigger, stronger, faster and he was starting to piss all of the veteran guys off in camp, just because he wouldn’t come off it. He wouldn’t come off it in practice; he was still finishing checks and grinding. The older guys are getting ready for the season and they don’t want to get popped in practice. But when he came in, he made the most of those opportunities.”
Now skating, err… scoring, with the Winnipeg Jets in the 2020 playoff qualifiers, Harkins will certainly continue to give coach Maurice difficult lineup decision if and when his fellow injured combatants are ready to return to the fold.
“Everything that Jansen Harkins got, he didn’t get there because he was drafted high and we needed to give him a chance,” Maurice said. “And we certainly didn’t develop him in the NHL. He earned his chance by paying his dues in the minors.”