Mark Scheifele made headlines a few years back by boldly stating he intended to be better than National Hockey League superstars Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby.
A lofty goal, to be sure. But the Winnipeg Jets centre — blessed with size, speed, and a deft scoring touch — has long been determined to show he belongs in any conversation about the NHL's finest.
The 2020-21 Stanley Cup playoffs were shaping up as Scheifele's time to further establish himself as an elite centreman. But now, he's on the sidelines after the NHL Department of Player Safety handed down a four-game suspension for charging Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans.
The incident happened Wednesday with less than a minute remaining in Game 1. With Montreal leading 4-3, Evans tucked in the puck in the open Winnipeg net.
Moments later, Scheifele swooped in, left his feet, and clobbered the unsuspecting Evans to the ice.
"It was a dirty hit," Montreal defenceman Joel Edmundson said of Scheifele after the game. "If he gets back in the series, we're going to make his life miserable."
The hard-checking Evans is out indefinitely with a concussion. And now, the Jets — for the second straight post-season — are forced to rely on their depth and hope they can survive without big No. 55.
WATCH | Graphic Warning: Habs' Evans exits Game 1 after violent hit from Jets' Scheifele:
Suspension puts Jets in an early hole
The earliest Scheifele can return is Game 6 (if necessary), while Game 2 is set for tonight (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET) at the Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg.
"The playoffs are a bit of a chess match," said Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey. "You have to make adjustments as you go."
In the playoff bubble last season in Edmonton, Scheifele was the victim of a questionable hit from Matthew Tkachuk just six minutes into Game 1 of the qualifiers against Calgary.
The Flames proceeded to eliminate the Jets in four games.
"If we're missing Mark, we're missing arguably our best player for however long," Winnipeg forward Andrew Copp said Thursday before the suspension was announced. "You saw the effect of that in the bubble.
"We're way better equipped to handle that now. Guys will have to step up in his place."
The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Scheifele led the Jets in scoring this season with 63 points in 56 games. But Winnipeg is one of the deepest teams in the league up front with Copp, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, and Pierre-Luc Dubois all at head coach Paul Maurice's disposal.
"We have guys up and down the lineup that can play centre," Copp said. "I've kind of been getting used to flipping back and forth between centre and wing over the course of the last few years.
"We're deeper now than we had been. It's kind of that next-man-up mentality."
WATCH | Longtime producer John Shannon talks about tough replay decisions on live TV:
Canadiens praise Ehlers
Winnipeg forward Nikolaj Ehlers earned praise from the Canadiens for bracing himself against the scrum to protect Evans as he lay near-motionless on the ice.
The speedy Ehlers — with 46 points in 47 regular-season games — is a player to watch for Winnipeg with Scheifele out.
On defence, the Jets are also hurting after Dylan DeMelo left Game 1 after the first shift with a leg injury. DeMelo usually plays on the first defensive pairing with Morrissey.
"We've had pretty good chemistry going here and it's tough to lose a guy that early," said Morrissey. " We'll see what happens here, and we'll all have to step up if he's not able to go."
On Monday night, the Canadiens arrived in Winnipeg on a high after roaring back from a 3-1 deficit to knock off the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of their North Division semifinal.
Fatigue could be a factor for the Canadiens. But interim head coach Dominique Ducharme figures his team will push even harder thanks to the Scheifele hit.
"An incident like that sparks emotion," Ducharme said. "I mentioned that it's sometimes difficult to spark emotion again after a seven-game series.
"They've sparked us even more now."