On a night when Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler returned from injury and veteran defenseman Jordie Benn played his first game in a Jets uniform, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ talented goalscorers who stole the show.
In fact, the visiting Leafs had a 2-0 lead on the Jets before Connor Hellebuyck’s equipment got damp.
Then the Jets tied it before Toronto netminder Jack Campbell saw eight shots.
The Leafs then took a 3-2 lead and drove Hellebuyck from the net before the 12-minute mark of the opening period.
In a what started as a wild one and ended with a whimper at Bell MTS Place on Thursday night, the visiting Leafs beat the Jets 5-3 to move six points ahead of Winnipeg in the race for first in the NHL’s North Division (the Jets still have a game in hand).
“Obviously, when you give up two early like that, it’s not ideal,” Mark Scheifele said post-game. “But we battled back right away and we got our chances and we capitalized on them and made it a game. It was a hard-fought game right to the end. They had their chances, we had ours, and we just came up a little short.”
Early on, this was a wild goal-scoring demonstration by two teams loaded with offensive stars.
The NHL’s goal-scoring leader, Auston Matthews, opened the barrage at the 27 second mark of the opening period on the first shot of the game. It was his 34th goal of the season. Veteran Wayne Simmonds made it 2-0 at 1:18 on the Leafs second shot of the game. It was Simmonds’ seventh.
Then the Jets tied it. Mark Scheifele scored his 18th of the season at 3:19 of the first. Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton picked up the assists. The tying goal came 10:26 as Copp scored his 15th of the year, tipping in pass/shot from Appleton.
But Toronto took the lead at 11:59 of the first as Jason Spezza, who is just a year short of being eligible for the COVID vaccine in Manitoba, scored his 10the of the year from Joe Thornton, who is eligible for the vaccine in our province right now, and Jake Muzzin.
The Spezza goal came on Toronto’s third shot and that one convinced Jets head coach Paul Maurice to replace Hellebuyck with Brossoit. Brossoit was solid for the rest of the game as the teams went to the first intermission with Toronto ahead 3-2. The Jets outshot the Leafs 14-12 in th opening frame, but Jets centre Adam Lowry took a check to the head from Toronto’s Alex Galchenyuk and didn’t return to the game. That was not good news for the Jets.
“If you circle a guy’s name on the board, you get sued,” Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice said in reference to his team’s lack of response following the perceived high hit. “I’ve got nothing on Lowry, the refs already made their decision on that hit, so what I’ve got to say doesn’t mean anything.”
In the second period, it became a bit of a defensive battle until the 12:58 mark when the Leafs Mitch Marner slapped a knuckle-puck over Brossoit’s glove hand to give Toronto a 4-2 advantage. Matthews drew the assist.
However, at the 17:26 mark, Blake Wheeler did some great work in the corner to get the puck in front to Kyle Connor and Connor beat Campbell threw the wickets to score his 22nd of the season, That cut the Leafs lead to 4-3. Wheeler and Scheifele drew the helpers. It was Scheifeles’ 300th career assist.
The Leafs outshot the Jets 10-9 in the second period as Brossoit was quite good as Hellebuyck’s replacement.
“Playing behind a Vezina-winning goalie can be a really, really tough job and he works really hard at it,” Copp said of Brossoit. “Great guy in the room, great supportive teammate and then he a really good goalie. We’re really fortunate to have both him and Helle.”
In the third period, both goalkeepers were the stars as Brossoit and Campbell kept the game close. Toronto finished it off with five seconds remaining as Marner scored his second of the night and 15th of the season into the empty Jets net.
The Jets outshot Toronto 37-33 and outhit them 29-20. The Leafs were zero-for-one on the power play while the Jets were zero-for-two. The Jets controlled the face-off circle winning 56 per cent of the draws.
However, once again, stats are for losers.
The Leafs and Jets go at it again on Saturday night at Bell MTS Place. It’s a 6 p.m. start on CBC and Sportsnet.