For 50 days, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets avoided each other after their season-series opener on the fourth night of the regular season.
But for some time, the North Divison’s top two teams by points percentage were headed on a collision course – with three games in five nights.
With the Jets continuing a five-game road trip, and the Maple Leafs returning home from one of their own – the visitors came out on the winning end of a spirited affair with a 4-3 victory at Scotiabank Arena.
If there was ever an image to put beside the phrase “bounce-back” in the dictionary, Connor Hellebuyck could be it.
The Jets’ goaltender stopped 31 straight shots – and 36 of 39 overall – for the win just three nights after being pulled in an ugly loss to Montreal.
“We didn’t go searching,” said Hellebuyck. “We all believed in our game and we stuck to it. We had a good practice, and you could tell guys were hungry for it, and they didn’t let it weigh in a negative way on their brains. We came and stuck to our game.”
The Jets have still yet to lose back-to-back games in regulation time this season, and are now 7-0-1 in games following a regulation defeat.
“We’re pretty level-headed,” forward Mason Appleton said. “Never too low, never too high. It’s kind of our mindset. You don’t like to lose two in a row in this league. That’s why it’s so hard to get on a roll when you’re winning. We were playing very good hockey up until that last game. We flushed it out right away, got on the plane, didn’t think about it anymore, and made the corrections, and got a big win here tonight.”
The Leafs have now lost three straight games for the first time this season.
The victory moved the Jets within five points of the division leading Leafs, and the Jets have two games in hand, with eight more meetings between the two clubs this season.
“Bottom line is when you’re going up against a top team in the division, you want to bring your best,” defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “And I thought we played a pretty solid game tonight in a lot of areas. Some things we’ll work on and we know that they’ll make adjustments and be better as well.”
The shots were heavily tilted in the Leafs’ favour at 39-23. Toronto outshot Winnipeg 18-11 in the second period, but the Jets accounted for both goals in the middle stanza.
“We were too far away from the puck early,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “And then we came and did a real nice job starting to support the puck and move it a little bit better.
“Did a better job controlling the middle as that period went on a little bit.”
Zach Hyman opened the scoring on a coast-to-coast rush, taking the puck all the way from the Leafs’ zone through Kyle Connor and lifting a backhander past Hellebuyck.
But the Jets responded on their second power play of the period as Neal Pionk’s shot from the blue line was tipped past Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen to tie the score at one.
The Leafs have now allowed four power play goals against in their past three games, evidence of a middling penalty kill that ranks 19th in the NHL – one of the team’s worst statistical categories relative to the rest of the league.
On his clubs’ first man advantage of the game, Auston Matthews scored his 19th goal of the year – but his first in 17 days – to restore the hosts’ lead heading into the break.
Nathan Beaulieu exited the game just two minutes into the second frame after blocking a shot from John Tavares that injured his left hand.
The Jets’ offence would continue to come from the blueline on their second goal, as Morrissey scored his first of the year on a wrister from the point that once again was deflected before passing Andersen.
Less than five minutes later, the Jets would have their first lead of the night when Nikolaj Ehlers used the net to fool Toronto defenseman Justin Holl, before feeding a pass into the slot for a wide-open Connor.
Appleton’s drive to the net was rewarded with his seventh goal of the year 7:52 into the third period, extending the visitors’ lead.
The Jets did their best to stifle any attempt from the Leafs to come back in the game’s waning minutes, but Matthews was able to cut the lead to one with his teams’ net empty, jamming home a puck in front of the crease.
Hellebuyck would come up with some of his biggest of his 36 saves after that – and his teammates were able to congratulate him as the horn sounded, and the Jets skated off with the win.
His .923 save percentage easily bested that of Andersen, who stopped 19 of 23 for an .826 rate.
Morrissey logged a season-high 29 minutes of ice time as the Jets played over half the game with five defencemen – while Pionk recorded three assists.
After having two consecutive days off following a loss to Montreal on Saturday, the Jets won’t be afforded that luxury again until mid-April – with Tuesday’s game beginning a stretch of 21 games in 39 nights.
After the Jets tied the season series at a game apiece, the two clubs resume their three-game set Thursday night in Toronto at 6 p.m.
Kelly Moore will have the pre-game show live on 680 CJOB at 4 p.m. – Jamie Thomas and Paul Edmonds have the call of the game.
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