In their final game before next Wednesday’s start to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets played a terrific hockey game and evened their season series with the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Jets got a pair of goals from Kyle Connor, two assists each from Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele and a solid goaltending effort from Connor Hellebuyck as they beat the Leafs 4-2 in front of another crowd of no one at BellMTS Place. The Jets finished the season series 4-4-2 against the Leafs, the first-place team in the North Division.
Now, however, they’ll open the post-season against the team they struggled against the most. Winnipeg was 2-7-1 against the Edmonton Oilers in this 56-game COVID-shortened season.
Granted, Friday night’s was meaningless in regards to the NHL standings, but for a team like the Jets who struggled mightily down the stretch, it was a great way to get set for the playoffs. Winnipeg won its final two games of the 2021 campaign, there of its last five and finished with a record of 30-23-3. Friday night’s victory was also Winnipeg’s first back-to-back wins since April 14-15.
“They’re excited, right?” head coach Paul Maurice said of his troops post-game. “We know the real challenge starting on the road against the team that we will face. But looking forward to it. There’s kind of a sense of excitement in that room. Win a game, you feel good. You get to play fun games now.”
In the first period, Toronto’s Pierre Engvall scored his seventh goal of the season at 7:15 to give the leafs a 1-0 advantage. Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Gamchenyuk picked up the assists.
The best player on the ice, as he as been every time he’s faced the Jets, was Toronto goalie Jack Campbell. The Jets outshot Toronto 11-10 through the first 20 minutes, but Campbell was rock solid.
The Jets did get a scare early in the opening period as Paul Stastny went down in a heap in the Leafs zone. He left the bench, but returned later and rook his regular shift. However, after the second period, he did not return to the bench for the third. Later, Pierre-Luc Dubois left the bench and missed the remainder of the third period with an undisclosed injury.
“They’re both going to be fine, we believe,” Maurice added. “Precautionary to say the least. We just didn’t want it to get worse. Nobody on the bench got to stay if they had anything. I don’t know if they’re going to practice two days from now but they’ll practice before they play, they will be in the opening night lineup.”
A minute and 13 seconds into the second period, the Jets got on the board, as Mason Appleton took a perfect pass from Dominic Tontinato and roofed it past Campbell. It was Appleton’s 12th of the year and one of the prettiest goals of the season. Adam Lowry drew the second assist.
Toronto regained the lead at 5:25 of the period as Mikheyev was left alone in front of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck and banged home a rebound off of Jake Muzzin’s point shot. It was Mikheyev’s seventh of the season.
However, the Jets tied it at two at 13:52 of the second when Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor broke out of the Jets zone on a two-one-one against Toronto D-man T. J. Brodie. Scheifele hit Connor with a terrific pass and the Jets leftwinger faked the shot and beat Campbell on a perfect backhand deke. It was Connor’s 25th of the year as Scheifele and Blake Wheeler drew the assists. It’s Connor’s fourth straight season with 25-plus goals and his 250th career NHL point.
“It’s always good for confidence,” Connor said. “Everybody loves to score goals. It helps in that sense. It’s pretty nice to hit the ground running. I think our game’s right and we can draw from that confidence and carry this forward.”
The Jets fought off a Toronto power play and the first 33 seconds of a second Leafs power play as the teams went to the 40-minute break tied at 2-2. Winnipeg outshot Toronto 9-8 in the second period (20-18 through two periods).
The Leafs came out flying in the third. Granted, they did have 1:27 remaining in their man advantage from late in the second and they took advantage of the situation to take the play right to Winnipeg. In fact, Toronto took the first nine shots of the period, but Hellebuyck stood his ground (he made one particularly outstanding save off a shot from goal-scoring leader Auston Matthews) and kept his team in the game.
And to their credit it, the Jets big line responded. Scheifele won a face-off in the Leafs zone and got the puck to Wheeler. The captain fed Connor who rifled a shot from an odd angle to score his 26th of the year and second of the night. It was a blistering shot — the first of the period for Winnipeg — and it gave the Jets a 3-2 lead.
“I think our line is in a good rhythm right now,” Wheeler said. “I think we’re jumping into holes at the right times and we’re being responsible in terms of reloading and backchecking and we’re creating a lot of loose pucks and a lot of turnovers and able to get some rushes going the other way. Any time you get guys like Kyle looks around the net, you’re going to get opportunities to score goals.”
The Jets made it 4-2 into Toronto’s empty net as Jansen Harkins scored his first of the season (that will be a trivia question in years to come) as Trevor Lewis drew the assist.
Whoever picked the three stars was drunk. Evidently, it was 1. Ilya Mikheyev, 2. Adam Lowry and 3. Kyle Connor. On what planet? There was absolutely no doubt that the three stars were 1. Connor, 2. Wheeler, 3. Scheifele and maybe Hellebuyck. Goodness gracious.
Toronto outshot Winnipeg 15-4 in the third period and 36-24 on the night. The Jets outhit Toronto 27-16 while the Leafs won 52 per cent of the face-offs.
“It was huge,” Appleton said of picking up the final win of the season. “Obviously with the losing streak we went on, you win the last game and you’re feeling better and to get two in a row with that win tonight it’s big for our club. You win two and you kind of forget about the losing streak. We’re a good hockey team; we spent the first two or three months without losing back-to-back. We know what we’re capable of and I think we’re going to show that here as we start the postseason.”
The Jets will have four days to prepare for the opening of the playoffs. Game time Wednesday night in Edmonton is 8 p.m. CDT on Sportsnet and CBC.
“That’s all you play for, you play for a chance to play in the playoffs,” Wheeler said. “We’re one of 16 teams that has a chance to win it all and nobody picked us to be alive right now so we have a lot to be proud of for the way we competed in the regular season and a lot to look forward to.”