The Winnipeg Jets open up a three-game series with the North Division leading Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Playing every second day through to the weekend, the top-two teams are sure to provide viewers with some exciting, back-and-forth hockey.
But under head coach Paul Maurice’s watch, the hope is that Winnipeg does not lose its identity in a fight or flight style of matchup.
“I think that’s a function of when you get really skilled young players that come into the NHL that really don’t know anything about defending,” Maurice told reporters on Monday. “You see that. And I think both teams, and that would be very true of Toronto’s games against Edmonton, are coming out of that. There’s a maturity coming. There are times not to make a play. It takes a guy a little while to figure out that I don’t have to display my God-given talent every time I tough the puck. As a matter of fact, it’s detrimental to the team cause.”
Both Winnipeg and Toronto are among the league leaders in goals scored, while the two Canadian clubs do boast strong goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck and Frederik Andersen (both top-three in wins). However, playing a solid game defensively will be a focal point for the Jets, beginning on Tuesday.
“I think that both their team and our team have made real improvements in the last month, from training camp to now, in the style of play,” Maurice added. “When you look at Toronto’s games against Edmonton, they were structured really well I thought in those games. For a team that’s noted to be high-flying and certainly had that ability, that wasn’t the foundation of their game. And it was to their advantage. Those were grinding games, they were close games, didn’t go their way. And I think that’s true of our team as well. The game that we played in here, boy they outshot us badly, especially in the second period. And they worked inside us and they kind of taught us a bunch of really good lessons about supporting the puck and being smarter with the puck.”
Referencing the first time the Jets and Leafs met back on January 18 in the second game of the season, Maurice knows his team will play better than the team that lost 3-1 to the now first-place Leafs.
Also joining in that stream of consciousness is newcomer Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has never faced the Leafs as a member of the Jets. He did, however, play a fabulous playoff series against Toronto this past summer, shutting down Toronto’s top forwards in a strong defensive performance.
“We’re a big team, we have good offence, too,” he said. “We know we move the puck well. We should bring it to them instead of just waiting and hoping for them to make a mistake. I think we have to go at them and play in their zone. Offensive players want to play in the offensive zone. They don’t want to be in the D-zone defending. As long as you can keep the puck there, it gets frustrating, and it’s not the game you technically want to play.”
Teammate Paul Stastny is also well aware of the damage that a team like Toronto can inflict. But he has a pretty good understanding of how to stop the charge.
“They just got a lot of finishers – like every team – but they don’t need as many chances to produce as many goals,” Stastny said. “They play a good transition game, they have good puck possession and they have a lot of creativity on that team. All four lines have different guys who play different ways and sometimes it can create havoc, and sometimes if you play it the right way you can create chances for yourself. For them, like I said, it’s those creative players, and they’re fun to watch and tough to play against. But you need to be aware when they’re out there. And their power play too, I think their power play is lethal; it’s kind of like an Edmonton power play, you don’t want to put them out there.”
Knowing full well what his opponent is all about, Stastny will look to help lead the attack both offensively and defensively, against one of the league’s very best all-round teams. In sticking to the Winnipeg Jets brand of hockey, the veteran forward believes his team has a real chance of picking up some important points this week.
“They’re fun to play against, but you just have to be careful,” he reflected. “There are some guys on our team and their team probably too that want to play that run-and-gun style and trade chance for chance, but I think that’s a dangerous game to play. But at the same time, there is going to be chances given up both ways and that’s just the matter of when you’re playing highly-skilled guys and playing with smart, two-way players that can create turnovers, that’s going to happen. I think it’s always a fun game. When I was here a few years ago and while I’ve been here now, I feel like every time Winnipeg plays Toronto – at least the last three or four years – it’s been some really fun hockey to watch and pretty evenly skilled battle.”
And why he believes that it is so difficult for teams to avoid falling into that run-and-gun style of game, simple, according to Stastny.
“Because we have a lot of young guys that are stubborn and just want to play that game,” he laughed. “You’re watching on the bench and you think that when you’re playing that run-and-gun style that you’re playing a faster game, but realize that you don’t. They’re creating more turnovers, more havoc than you think. When you’ve been in the league longer and you take a step back, you realize if you do come out as a unit of five and you do kind of play your game, you’ll have much more possession and then what happens is that when you have possession, that’s when the other team starts taking chances and that’s when you create turnovers and you get the odd-man rushes.”
According to fellow Jets forward Adam Lowry, the emphasis from practice this week has been on sticking to Winnipeg Jets hockey. Much like Stastny indicated, Lowry too believes that sticking to the team’s identity will help it overcome a big blue and white hurdle.
“For the most part, we’ve done a good job of trying to stick to our style and play a game that we’re successful with,” he said. “Obviously, we have some forwards up front that are very dangerous off the rush and kind of thrive in some of those games. But I think for the most part, we don’t want to get into that style. We’re constantly talking about playing to our identity, playing to our team’s strengths and I think that’s gonna be important here in this three-game set.”
And as to what Lowry expects heading into this series with Toronto, well, it will most likely be anyone’s game.
“We’re getting a lot closer to the identity and the way we want to play,” he said. “That’s big, that’s fast and kind of imposing our will and that’s from controlling the puck and playing with pace. That’s going to be something we try and do. Obviously, the Leafs are rolling. They’ve lost a couple, but they’ve had a great start to the year and we know it’s going to be a tough test for us and we’re looking forward to that. It’s gonna be a fun three-game set.”
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