Saturday night will most certainly be a doozie.
For the second time in three days, the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs met in a battle between the top two teams in the Scotia North Division. And again, it was as entertaining of a game as one could ask for.
With the third game of the mini series coming up on Saturday, the teams will head into the best-of-three with one win apiece. Thursday evening showcased yet another close matchup, ultimately seeing the home team take the second of three games by way of a 4-3 overtime victory.
With Toronto earning the first victory of the season back on January 18, the two teams duked it out in a back-and-forth game Tuesday evening. After falling behind, the Jets came back for a 4-3 victory, handing Leafs’ netminder Frederik Andersen his first career regulation loss to Toronto in 13 games.
Thursday was a bit of a different story however. Entering the second of three-straight against the Maple Leafs, Winnipeg had won seven of its last nine games overall, while owning a 7-4-0 road record. The Jets had struggled against Toronto, however, having lost four of the team’s last six matchups with the Leafs. Toronto entered Thursday’s game after putting up 39 shots on goal in back-to-back contests.
After being placed on the team’s taxi squad, defenceman Logan Stanley made his return to the Jets’ lineup on Thursday. Playing 13-straight games alongside Nathan Beaulieu earlier in the season, the giant defender drew back into the lineup after Beaulieu suffered a hand injury blocking a shot on Tuesday. The remainder of the Jets’ lineup remained the same on Thursday.
The opening frame was mainly uneventful, hold for a late-period display of hand-eye control by Pierre-Luc Dubois. Intercepting an airborne Travis Dermott pass in the neutral zone, the 22-year-old walked over the blueline and found Nikolaj Ehlers, who put strong wrist shot past Andersen off the post and into the net, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead through 20 minutes.
It didn’t take long for Toronto to respond. Mitch Marner equalized the game just 3:14 into the middle stanza. Scoring on the rebound off a long-range point shot, Marner saw TJ Brodie and Auston Matthews pick up the assists on the early tying goal. That goal, however, was as much as the Leafs could muster in the second frame. Connor Hellebuyck responded nicely, picking up his third breakaway save of the game, before robbing William Nylander in tight a number of times.
Winnipeg then responded with another goal from Ehlers. This time it was Kyle Connor and Ehlers on a two-on-one, where the latter found the former on a perfectly placed pass. Ehlers turned that pass into a beautiful one-timer that beat a sprawling Freddie Andersen for his team-leading 13th goal of the season.
Despite finding themselves outshot by Toronto 24-16, the Jets were also out shot-attempted 47-24 through 40 minutes of play. Relying on strong play between the pipes by Hellebuyck and some heavy offence from the second line, the Jets looked to seal the deal in the final period of play. Despite a strong mindset, things changed rather quickly for Winnipeg.
Nylander, who had come up empty on a plethora of chances in the game’s opening periods finally found a way to beat Hellebuyck six-and-a-half minutes into the third. John Tavares drove hard to the Jets’ net before dishing the puck off to Nylander, who hammered it past the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, knotting the game at two, with the majority of the period remaining.
After Logan Stanley went chasing Pierre Engvall for a big hit behind the Jets’ net, Ilya Mikheyev put the Leafs ahead for the first time with 7:21 to play. Engvall got the puck to Alex Kerfoot directly behind Hellebuyck, who found Mikheyev all alone in front of the net. He beat both Dylan DeMelo and Hellebuyck with a quick release, putting Toronto up 3-2 late in the game.
With 2:26 to play and Connor Hellebuyck on the bench for the extra attacker, Ehlers took yet another shot on net that found its way through Andersen. This time, however, it was deflected off the stick of Paul Stastny, for the veteran forward’s eighth of the season. Although trailing the Leafs by 10 shots, Winnipeg’s late-effort helped the team bring the game to a much-needed overtime period.
“We don’t judge ourselves by the other team,” captain Blake Wheeler said. “I think we’re focused on our game. Obviously Toronto has had a great season and they’re a really good team, they play really hard. There’s not a lot of free ice out there for either side, as you can see. Pretty good hard-fought battles, both these games.”
Much like the script of the past number of games requiring overtime, Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice once again opted to use three forwards to start the extra frame. However, Toronto’s more cautious approach paid off. With defenceman Morgan Rielly on the ice to start the overtime period, the blueliner collected the loose puck and fed Auston Matthews, who put a dazzler of a move on Hellebuyck, winning the game just 59 seconds into the period, handing Winnipeg its first overtime loss of the season.
“Our line was great offensively,” Ehlers said. “We got chances, we scored on them. And defensively we weren’t strong enough; we were on the ice for all three of those goals and that sucks. So I don’t know, we got a point going against Toronto, that’s not bad. So we are going to take a look at that game, but then we are going to move forward and be ready for the next one even though this is not fun.”
Hellebuyck finished the night with 33 saves on 37 Toronto shots, and saw his record fall to 12-7-2 on the season. With the win Andersen’s record improved to 13-5-2 through his 20 games. Winnipeg is now 16-8-2 on the season, while first-place Toronto holds onto an 19-7-2 record.
“We put those guys out there for a reason and I’d take that chance again,” Maurice said of his personnel decision for three-on-three overtime. “You get a three-on-two, net front, with those three guys and it’s worked for us. We’ve been just a really strong overtime team. At the end of the day, with the chances for and against with the way that they were, it was probably a just result. But we had our chance.”
The two teams will finish off the three-game set on Saturday evening in a 6:00 PM central matchup featured on Hockey Night in Canada. Following the series finale, Winnipeg will return home to Bell MTS Place for two games against Montreal, before heading out for a seven-game trip through western-Canada.