TORONTO — For a few minutes, it looked like the weary Winnipeg Jets might just defy the long odds. They were cooking with gas, and two quick goals had them off to a strong start as they wrapped up the busiest month of their season against a rested, high-flying opponent.
It didn’t last. And by the midway mark of the game, it was playing out the way most pundits predicted.
“We were cooked,” is how captain Blake Wheeler described it to the Free Press at Scotiabank Arena. “We just didn’t have anything.”
The end result was a lopsided 7-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday which puts an end to a three-game winning streak. Winnipeg is now 33-26-10, ending the night either two or three points out of the final Western Conference wildcard playoff spot with 13 games left, depending on how the rest of the out-of-town scoreboard shook out. Toronto improves to 43-19-5.
“It is hard, but it’s hard for everyone. We love playing games. We’re in a spot where we need to win games, and besides playoffs, this is the toughest time of the year,” forward Nikolaj Ehlers said of trying to fight through the fatigue. “Wins are not easy to get, so we need to just continue grinding. We’ve played some really good games his year and played some really bad games, and we just gotta get some wins. That’s the way it is. That’s hockey.”
Rather than the sleepy starts that have become a bit of a troubling norm lately, the Jets had their legs going early. Wheeler opened the scoring at 3:19 with a dazzling individual effort, turning Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano inside out and beating goalie Erik Källgren with a deke for his 12th of the year.
“Nice to see one go in when you’re all alone. It was a good way to start the game,” said the 35-year-old Wheeler, who had a regulation goal and a shootout winner against Buffalo 24 hours earlier. “Too bad we couldn’t carry it through the rest of the game.”
The other grizzled veteran on the team, Paul Stastny, made it 2-0 when he showed off some quick hands on a wrap-around following an Ehlers shot that went wide. It’s the 18th of the year for the 36-year-old pending unrestricted free agent.
Toronto, among the Eastern Conference heavyweights and coming off big victories over fellow contenders Florida and Boston, was down, but certainly not out.
“I wouldn’t say false hope. I liked our start,” interim coach Dave Lowry said of his how club came flying out of the gate. It was Winnipeg’s 16th game of March, and seventh in 12 nights.
They got a bit of an unlucky break at 15:03 of the first when Giordano’s pass attempt deflected off Jets defenders Logan Stanley and Brenden Dillon and into the net behind backup goalie Eric Comrie who was making just his 12th start of the season.
“We really liked our start. It’s too bad we gave up that goal towards the end,” said Lowry.
That gave the Leafs some life. As did a parade of penalties taken by an obviously fatigued Winnipeg team — four in total before the game was even halfway done. William Nylander tied things up 1:58 into the second period, 18 seconds after Mason Appleton was whistled for tripping.
Winnipeg temporarily regained the lead at 3:35 when Ehlers wired a wrister for his 21st of the year, but that would be all the offence they could muster.
“(It’s fun) when you have the puck, yeah, but that’s not really the type of game we want to play, and there was way too much of that today,” Ehlers said of the wide-open affair.
John Tavares tied it 4:08, and then Nylander struck again on the power play at 8:40, this time with Pierre-Luc Dubois in the sin bin for tripping. The big turning point then came at 13:55, with the Jets on the power play and with a chance to pull even. A poor pinch led to an odd-man rush and an Ilya Mikheyev shorthanded goal to make it 5-3.
“They’re a good hockey team. We gave up the one goal that goes in off our body and allows them to generate some momentum and they’re able to bring it even. I thought we battled. They score right after we score, and then they took over the game,” said Lowry.
Auston Matthews gave the home crowd what they were waiting for when he fired a puck into an empty net with just over two minutes to play, hitting the 50-goal mark for the first time in his career. The game was halted for several minutes as hats and shirts rained down on the ice.
Things took a bit of a nasty turn shortly after, with Dominic Toninato taking a run at Timothy Liljegren and Brenden Dillon dropping the gloves with Kyle Clifford. Liljegren then scored on the ensuing power play to further rub it in.
Several 10-minute misconducts were handed out to Mason Appleton, Adam Lowry and Wayne Simmonds as tempers continued to flare. It was a carryover from the other meeting between the teams back in December, won 6-3 by the Jets. That night included a knee-on-knee hit from Neal Pionk to Rasmus Sandin, and predatory head shot in retaliation by Jason Spezza to Pionk.
In addition to giving his No. 1 netminder, Connor Hellebuyck, a rare night off, Lowry made one other lineup change: forward Morgan Barron made his Jets debut after getting called up from the Manitoba Moose earlier in the day. The 23-year-old was obtained last week from the New York Rangers as part of the Andrew Copp trade. He took the spot of Adam Brooks, who was a healthy scratch.
The Jets were without top scorer Kyle Connor and leading offensive defenceman Nate Schmidt for a second straight game, with both currently in COVID-19 protocol. They won’t be able to rejoin their teammates until early next week.
“No doubt we’ll look at it, dissect it, but we have to move on,” Lowry said of quickly putting this one in the rear-view mirror. “For us, you don’t like the end result, but we did a lot of good things. There are some areas that we continue to have to improve on. You have to have a short-term memory at this time of the year.”
Comrie finished the night with 31 saves on 37 shots. Kallgren stopped 20 of 23 pucks he faced.
Winnipeg chartered home following the game and will now get ready for a critical three-game homestand which begins Saturday with the Los Angeles Kings in town. They’ll get some much needed rest after that, not facing Detroit until Wednesday, followed by Colorado on Friday.
“Big game Saturday,” said Wheeler. “They’re all big games from here on out, so get back to it and hopefully we can go into our little break here on a high note.”
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