The Winnipeg Jets travelled to Toronto on Tuesday for the first matchup of a three-game mini-series with the North Division leading Maple Leafs. With the Jets coming off a surprise 7-1 drubbing by the Montreal Canadiens and the Leafs having lost two-straight to Vancouver, both clubs were looking for some redemption in a three-game set between top teams.
In taking on the powerhouse Toronto team, Winnipeg made its correction look easy, following a very difficult game on Saturday evening in Montreal. Powered by defenceman Neal Pionk, the Jets relied on a strong second period and added to their lead in the third, handing the Leafs their first three-game losing streak of the season, by way of a 4-3 score.
Despite it being a low-shooting opening period, three goals were scored in the frame. Toronto opened the scoring with Zach Hyman beating Connor Hellebuyck on just the Leafs’ third shot of the game. Walking untouched on a breakout play, Hyman watched as Jets’ defenceman Nathan Beaulieu dove for cover before splitting the remaining players en route to an easy backhander over the shoulder of Winnipeg’s backstop.
Owning a league-best 13-2-1 record when scoring first, the Leafs didn’t seem to care much when Andrew Copp scored a power play goal midway through the frame. With Jake Muzzin in the box for hooking Mark Scheifele, Neal Pionk’s point shot was directed by Copp where it found its way past a Mathieu Perreault screen and Frederik Andersen into the Leafs’ net, knotting the game at ones.
But on a power play of their own, the Leafs scored a similar deflection goal, just one minute into the man advantage. Operating at a league-best 31 percent, Toronto got the puck to Morgan Rielly, whose point shot was deflected by the leagues goal-scoring leader Auston Matthews, who potted his 19th of the season with 2:16 to go in the frame.
Beginning the second period trailing 2-1 and behind in the shot department 8-6, Winnipeg turned things around, scoring twice in the middle stanza. The first goal came on yet another deflection, however, this one was an own goal that Auston Matthews will want to have back. A long-range Morrissey point shot redirected off Matthews’ skate and over Andersen’s glove, knotting the game at twos with 7:15 to go.
“Yeah, it was nice,” Morrissey laughed. “I had some good chances, made some good shots, but obviously they haven’t gone in. So it was nice to get one, obviously with the nice lift. It felt good, whenever you can score. You know, I shaved the other day in between games, so maybe that helped, who knows. That’s what the guys were saying, so I will probably keep this look for a while.”
Then, just five minutes later, Nikolaj Ehlers used his speed to capitalize on a slow Leafs line change. Blowing by two Toronto defenders, the speedy Jet carried the puck into the Leafs’ zone and stood with it behind the net. Making no mistake, he found Kyle Connor who quickly fired it past Andersen and into the net for a late-period lead. Still trailing on the shot chart (26-17) Winnipeg entered the third period up 3-2 over the top team in the division.
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The Jets followed up a strong second period with another quick goal in the third. On yet another play setup by Pionk, Copp found a streaking Mason Appleton, who drove hard to the net and tucked he puck past Andersen before crashing into the end boards. Appleton’s seventh of season gave Copp a multi-point outing and gave Pionk his third assist of the night.
With 1:54 remaining and Andersen on the bench for the extra attacker, John Tavares found Matthews all alone in front of the Jets’ net, where Matthews collected his 20th goal of the season, bringing the home team to within one of Winnipeg. Despite a valiant last-minute effort, Toronto was unable to tie the game, with the Jets’ forwards, defencemen and goaltenders alike making key blocks in the dying seconds.
“I think you just use it for energy, really,” Hellebuyck said of his rebound following the 7-1 loss on Saturday. “I felt good in the last game, and I didn’t let that weigh on my brain at all. Sometimes the puck just doesn’t bounce your way. After that game, I was just straight focused on the next one, and ready to get all my energy and show that I’m better than that.”
Hellebuyck turned aside 36 of Toronto’s 39 shots on Tuesday, while seeing his record improve to 12-7-1 on the season. Andersen, who took the loss, fell to 12-5-2 on the year, losing his first career game in regulation against the Jets. Toronto outshot Winnipeg 39-23 on the evening.
“But that guy is in that elite level,” Paul Maurice said of Hellebuyck. “When we’re talking about – I’ll just say our team – if we’re talking about Mark Scheifele or we’re talking about Kyle Connor or Blake Wheeler’s passing, there’s an eliteness to it and that is absolutely true of Connor Hellebuyck. He has driven himself to become an elite goalie. He comes to this rink today, not just fired up but there’s also an underlying confidence there that he’s going to be good.”
Despite taking both points and moving to 16-8-1 on the season, Winnipeg did see one injury Tuesday, as defenceman Nathan Beaulieu hurt his left hand blocking a John Tavares shot early on in the second period. He went immediately to the dressing room and did not return. Coach Paul Maurice did not have any form of an update post-game, but assumes he will know something come Wednesday morning.
The two clubs will renew acquaintances again on Thursday evening from Scotiabank arena, before they reconvene one again on Saturday. Thursday’s game can be viewed live on TSN, while Saturday’s game will be available on Hockey Night in Canada. Both contests feature 6:00 PM central puck drops.