The Toronto Maple Leafs completed a two-game series sweep in Winnipeg on Saturday night. It was, what could be called, a strange game.
In fact, in a match that included Kyle Connor trying to start a fight, Joe Thornton becoming the oldest Leafs player ever to score a goal and — in a very rare occurrence — the benching of Mark Scheifele for the final 13 minutes of the second period, the Leafs beat the Jets 4-1, swept the two games in Winnipeg this week and improved to 4-3-2 against the Jets this season.
“This is going to be a big character build for us as team,” Hellebuyck said post-game. “You never know how much adversity you go through, and we seem to keep going through little spurts of adversity. Hopefully, we come back from this stronger. We have the character to do that and it’s time for us to learn and prove it.”
The Jets actually got off to a great start.
Nikolaj Ehlers opened the scoring — and displayed his incredible hands in the process — at the 39 second mark of the first period, taking a marvellous pass from Paul Stastny and tipping it high into the cage behind Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell. It was, officially, the first shot of the game and it gave Ehlers 21 goals on the season.
However, the Leafs tied it at 4:04 as big Joe Thornton became the oldest player in the Leafs history to score a goal. Thornton, who is 41 years and 296 days old, wrapped the puck around the net and into the corner behind a stretching Connor Hellebuyck. It was Toronto’s second shot of the game. Winnipeg’s own Adam Brooks picked up the primary assist. At this stage, Hellebuyck had allowed four goals on eight shots in his last two games against the Leafs.
Toronto took the lead at 11:40 of the first on a crazy goal that is actually starting to appear somewhat commonplace against the Jets. The Leafs cleared the puck into the Winnipeg zone and Hellebuyck went behind his net to play it. However, the puck hit a stanchion and bounced right in front of the goal where Mitch Marner banged it into the empty net. Jake Muzzin and Nick Foligno were given the assists. It was third stanchion goal scored on Hellebuyck this season. The first two came in Montreal.
It was also the fifth goal scored against Hellebuyck on just 12 shots by the Leafs in the past two games.
That did it for the first period. The Jets outshot Toronto 11-10, outhit the Leafs 9-6 and won 61 per cent of the face-offs and were still behind. Analytics don’t mean much when a team scores twice on seven shots.
The Leafs scored the only goal of the third period as John Tavares converted a great pass from William Nylander to score his 17th of the season at 7:07.
From that point on, Hellebuyck played his best hockey of the series. At one point, he even killed off a penalty almost single-handedly as he made 14 consecutive saves, some of the highlight-reel variety.
Toronto led 3-1 after two periods and had outshot the Jets 27-17 (17-6 in the second period alone). The Jets had outhit Toronto 22-9 after 40 minutes but the Leafs had four power plays to Winnipeg’s two.
In the third period, things got nasty. As Scheifele finished his benching, after a total of 17 minutes on the plank, the Jets started to get some offensive zone play, but not many shots.
“Yeah, I mean Scheif’s a huge part of our team and always plays with an edge, plays hard,” linemate Blake Wheeler said of Mark Scheifele riding the pine on Saturday. “We need him out there to have success. I thought he did a good job with it.”
The game was littered with high sticks, pushing and shoving in front of the net and even a couple of really dirty cross-checks. The Jets finally got their third power play of the night with five minutes to play, but despite a couple of solid chances, Campbell stood tall in the Leafs net. At the end of the power play, Pionk hit the post from the point and that’s as close as the Jets would come.
After Toronto’s Wayne Simmonds and the Jets Pierre Luc-Dubois were handed 10-minute misconducts late in the game and sent to their respective rooms, Alex Kerfoot scored an empty netter for the Leafs with 1:30 left to play and that was the dagger. Toronto pulled eight points ahead of Winnipeg in the race (jog) for first in the North Division and will be nigh impossible to catch with nine games to play.
“This is the right time for us to deal with this,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. “We haven’t had it this year. And that’s a real positive thing, right. You’ve been resilient, you’ve been able to come back. We haven’t had that stretch, fortunately, knock on wood, where we’ve had a run of injuries or had bad, negative feelings sitting in our room. You hate losing hockey games, but you got an opportunity to deal with it now and talk about it and get it out there and get our energy level right.”
It was the first time this season that the Jets have lost three straight games.
“This happens to every team, it just hasn’t happened to us yet,” Maurice continued. “So here it is now. The next three will be against playoff teams, and we got to find our way out of it.”
Toronto outshot the Jets 37-26 and had four power plays to Winnipeg’s two. Neither team scored with the man advantage. The Jets outhit the Leafs 28-18, but Toronto scored four straight goals and that was the obvious difference in this one.
“I thought we were pretty intense,” Hellebuyck said of his team’s game. “This is one of those ones you have to look back and see what went wrong. We didn’t have very good luck; off the stanching, that’s not great. Third one, I lost an edge. That’s pretty routine movement for me and I was right on it. Two game-changing goals, but it is what it is.”
The Jets play again on Monday night at home against the Edmonton Oilers. Game time is 8 p.m. CDT on TSN3.