Anytime the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town, fans in attendance at Canada Life Centre are sure to get their money’s worth.
From the deafening ‘Go Leafs Go’ chants – some even before the singing of the national anthem – to the ongoing quarrels and jeers between competitive teams and fans alike, the all-Canadian matchup is definitely one of the highlights of the calendar.
“You see the energy in the building with the Leafs and Canadiens, their fans travel well,” Josh Morrissey said post-game. “You could hear it from before the national anthem even, tonight, you know, the battle of the Leafs and Jets chants. It’s always a fun atmosphere. I think that intensity just ramps the intensity up in the game and, for us, it’s a chance to get to play on Hockey Night in Canada and we don’t always get to do that. And it’s the Leafs, it’s an intense game. You know, that just seems to be the way it goes.”
Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada showing between the Jets and Leafs did not disappoint.
Always a testy affair, this time it was the Leafs ultimately pulling ahead in the second period and never looking back. Both scoring and fighting twice in the frame, the visitors got two goals from captain John Tavares and three points from superstar Auston Matthews in the win. Ilya Samsonov turned aside 31 of Winnipeg’s 32 shots on net.
“Well the atmosphere tonight, fans were fantastic,” head coach Rick Bowness said post-game, after his first official game as the Jets’ bench boss. “It was a good hockey game. It was going back and forth, it was intense. It was a hell of a hockey game. We came out on the short end of it. But certainly the fans created a good atmosphere. It was fun to be a part of.”
The Jets actually opened the scoring for the fourth time in five games, with Pierre-Luc Dubois grabbing his second goal of the season. Each member of the second line contributed to Dubois’ tally, with Blake Wheeler setting the play up, getting the puck over to Cole Perfetti. The rookie dished it to Dubois, who cut to the net, wired a shot on net and collected his own rebound, burying it past Ilya Samsonov, giving the Jets a 1-0 lead just 4:17 into the contest.
But with Josh Morrissey in the box for a neutral zone trip on Auston Matthews, the Leafs struck back. Matthews collected a pass in his skates, controlled it and found William Nylander in the slot. He quickly dished to his linemate John Tavares who put it past Connor Hellebuyck high, blocker side, evening the game up at ones.
The back-and-forth opening frame ended with the two teams knotted up at ones, with nine shots apiece.
After a quick David Kampf goal off a nifty feed from Wayne Simmonds, the middle stanza saw some of the feistiness shown in past seasons carry over to the tune of two separate incidents late in the period. The first scuffle came on the heels of what appeared to be a legal Josh Morrissey open-ice hit on Nick Robertson.
“I thought it was a little bit of a questionable hit,” Simmonds said. “I didn’t see too much of it, but I loved the way our team responded when Mo jumped in and the rest of the guys followed. It’s great to see that. We try to preach all for one and one for all and all for one in this dressing room and we saw that tonight.”
Morgan Rielly immediately came to the defence of his fallen teammate and dropped the mitts with Morrissey in what turned into a miniature line brawl.
“I think he got an interference penalty, that was the correct call; the puck wasn’t there,” Tavares said. “He came in pretty hot. We got a good response from the group here, obviously, it speaks a lot of Mo’s character, not surprising. He carried himself forward for our group. And then after that we just stayed calm and composed as the temperature of the game really went up there.
Shortly thereafter, it was Rasmus Sandin checking Cole Perfetti into the end boards from behind on a play that went uncalled. Pierre-Luc Dubois took exception and jumped Sandin, prompting what was the second donnybrook in what seemed like a matter of seconds.
With Dubois receiving the additional minor for his immediate reaction to the uncalled play, the Leafs wasted little time putting an exclamation mark on the blown call. With fans midway through a heavy ‘Ref You Suck!’ chant, Sandin found Matthews at the point, who turned and fired the puck at Hellebuyck. Captain Tavares redirected the disc cleanly, beating Hellebuyck for his third of the season and second of the game. Toronto outshot Winnipeg in the frame 14-10, bringing their lead to 23-19 through 40 minutes of play.
For the Jets, the ‘what ifs’ continued through the final period of play. After finding iron earlier in the game, Dubois hit his second post of the game and third in the past two contests on a power play chance early in the period.
“It’d be nice if we could get a win out of those two games at least,” Dubois said. “I mean, at the end of the year if I score 50 and we don’t win, it doesn’t mean much to me. If me not scoring means we win, I’ll take that.”
But that was as close as Winnipeg would get. Despite taking over the shot lead in the early stages of the third, the period ended the same way it began, with Toronto hanging on for the W. Michael Bunting won a foot race and potted an empty-netter with 2:37 to play, sealing the deal for the Leafs.
“The difference in the game was clearly specialty teams,” Bowness said. “We hit a couple of goal posts. And theirs went in. We had some good looks and just didn’t capitalize on them. It comes down to when they score two power play goals and we didn’t score any. We had some really good looks but they just didn’t go in.”
Connor Hellebuyck turned aside 24 of Toronto’s 27 shots on net, but saw his record fall to 2-2-0 on the year, while Ilya Samsonov improved to 4-0-0 with a 31 save performance.
“Like any player, when you start playing and get rolling and good things are happening, you really start to get a good eye and a good feel on things, and you can really start to see that happening for him,” Tavares said of Samsonov. “So, I know he’s got a great mindset and attitude every day, so just continue to go with that and get better tomorrow and be ready for the next opportunity.”
Winnipeg continues its miniature two-game homestand on Monday when fellow Central Division rival St. Louis rolls into town for a 7:00 PM showdown with the Jets. Winnipeg then heads back out on the road for three late-night games against Pacific Division opponents. All four games can be viewed live on TSN.