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A Winnipeg Jets squad that has admittedly been struggling to deal with heightened expectations came up short Wednesday night at Bell MTS Place, putting in perhaps their most disappointing effort of the young season in a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Billed as a juicy matchup between two Canadian hockey heavyweights, the Jets had sand kicked in their faces early and often by their eastern neighbours. The fact it came on a big stage — the game was broadcast across Canada by Sportsnet and across the United States by NBCSN — only adds to the sting.
Winnipeg falls to 6-3-1, while Toronto improves to 7-3-0.
It’s no secret the Jets just hadn’t looked themselves despite winning six of their first nine games. Captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week his team was “carrying a lot of weight, carrying a lot of expectation” which was “inhibiting” them from playing their best.
But the ability to get by on talent alone against several inferior opponents and keep racking up the points was of little help as they faced-off against a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
The Jets did try to mount a late rally after falling behind 3-0 through 40 minutes, scoring two quick third-period goals to briefly suggest they might have more tricks up their sleeves, but Toronto took advantage of some sloppy defensive play by responding a couple minutes later to put this one away.
Winnipeg’s 15 game regular-season point streak on home ice (14-0-1) came to an end with the loss. The Jets finished this six-game homestand, their longest of the season, at 4-1-1.
Toronto came flying out of the gate, no doubt motivated by the fact they had lost two straight games and been idle since last Saturday. They fired 18 first-period shots on Connor Hellebuyck, and another 16 pucks that either missed the net or were blocked.
Kasperi Kapanen opened the scoring late in the period, taking advantage of two consecutive Patrik Laine turnovers and beating Hellebuyck high.
That prompted a huge roar from the vocal Toronto fans in the crowd, who would end up having plenty to cheer about on the night.
The Jets have now given up the first goal in six of their 10 games, including three in a row. By comparison, Winnipeg surrendered the opening tally only 37 times in 82 regular-season games last year.
Rather than re-group and come out focused following the first intermission, Winnipeg was even more sluggish in the second period as Tyler Ennis and Nazem Kadri added to the lead. Ennis’ goal came on a nifty tip, while Kadri’s was a softy Hellebuyck would no doubt want back.
Winnipeg only mustered four shots, none of them dangerous, in the middle frame.
Coach Paul Maurice brought the line blender out to start the third, moving Nikolaj Ehlers up to the top line with Mark Scheifele and Wheeler. Laine, who started the game in that spot, moved down to play with Bryan Little and Kyle Connor.
It seemed to spark the Jets, as Ehlers broke a personal 27-game scoreless drought when he took a Jacob Trouba pass and beat Frederik Andersen 4:57 into the final frame. Ehlers reached back, pulling the proverbial monkey off his back and throwing it into the crowd for good measure.
Scheifele cut the deficit to one with a power-play goal 91 seconds later, but Toronto’s John Tavares responded with the dagger exactly two minutes later to make it 4-2. Mitch Marner turned Dustin Byfuglien inside-out on the play, and Tavares, the prized free-agent signing, cashed in the rebound.
Laine, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL draft, had his weakest game of the season, although he did hit a crossbar in the first period. Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick that year, also had a quiet night and was held off the scoresheet.
Winnipeg now heads to Detroit to play the Red Wings on Friday night, then meet the Maple Leafs again Saturday at Scotiabank Centre. After that it’s off to Finland for a pair of games against the Florida Panthers.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.