Jets’ stars shine bright in 5-2 win over Leafs

You’ll recall the premise behind the Incredible Hulk, when mild-mannered Bruce Banner would issue a strange warning before his terrifying transformation into a muscular green monster that left a trail of destruction in its wake.

It seems the Winnipeg Jets adopted a similar motto on Thursday night: “Don’t make us angry. You wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.” How else to explain the way this tired, homesick bunch powered through a heavy dose of early adversity, then pounded out an impressive 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs?

And make no mistake, the Jets were spitting fire in the early going at Scotiabank Arena, after Alex Galchenyuk scored 3:41 into the game, Mason Appleton was called for hooking at 6:45 and Dylan DeMelo quickly joined him after a questionable cross-checking call at 7:34 that had coach Paul Maurice cursing up a blue streak towards the officials.

Considering his club had just spotted the top team in the division a quick lead, handed them a prolonged two-man advantage and was playing for a second straight night — and a 17th time in the past 22 games in enemy territory — you’d be forgiven for thinking this had all the makings of a lopsided loss.

Instead, the opposite happened. Winnipeg survived the critical early kill, then channelled that rage in a more positive way by scoring three times in a 189-second span, to suddenly take control. They never looked back, a team that seems to thrive on adversity finding yet another way to get it done.

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs with teammate Mathieu Perreault during the first period in Toronto on Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn</p>
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Winnipeg Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs with teammate Mathieu Perreault during the first period in Toronto on Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

“Yeah, there was emotion that got built right into that. Everybody’s a little edgy right now, 17 of 22, we don’t have a road game in our time zone. So you’re a little fatigued coming into the game, you’re a little edgy. But you need almost a starter, a catalyst to bring it out,” Maurice admitted following the game.

“And I think the calls, the great kill, that was the catalyst to get us angry enough, and then it came out and we were pretty good.”

Winnipeg improves to 27-14-3, including 4-1-0 on this eastern road trip. They move within three-points of first-place Toronto, who fall to 28-12-4. Both teams have 14 regular-season games remaining, including three head-to-head match-ups next week at Bell MTS Place. This was the start of seven straight games against Toronto and Edmonton, who will also pay three visits to Winnipeg on this upcoming six-game homestand, beginning Saturday night.

It’s hard to read too much into this one, as the Maple Leafs were without leading scorer Auston Matthews due to minor injury, and big trade deadline addition Nick Foligno hasn’t suited up yet because of quarantine. Winnipeg was without Blake Wheeler, who is working his way back from a concussion and has missed the last five games.

The team’s other big offensive stars more than covered for the captain’s absence. Kyle Connor scored twice and had an assist, Nikolaj Ehlers potted a pair, and Mark Scheifele had a goal and two helpers. Connor Hellebuyck bounced back from a rough outing Monday night in Ottawa with 31 saves, while Neal Pionk had two assists.

“We grinded the whole game. We didn’t like our whole game, but we definitely answered the call when we needed to. That’s a big win to end a long, long road trip,” said Scheifele, who admitted it could have gone sideways early.

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele scores on Toronto Maple Leafs' goaltender Jack Campbell during the first period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele scores on Toronto Maple Leafs’ goaltender Jack Campbell during the first period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

“You get a big kill like that, the momentum, it’s huge from a kill like that, especially a 5-on -3. We definitely were feeling it. Once we killed that off, our game got better. We started getting quicker, we started to get pucks behind them, and it showed.”

It was Scheifele who turned the puck over in his own zone which led directly to Galchenyuk’s opening goal, which went in and out so quickly play continued for another 41 seconds until the NHL sounded a buzzer within the rink to bring play to a halt. Scheifele was slow to get back and cover his man, Galchenyuk.

“That first goal against, they know, right? Mark turns one over inside the line and we get beat on a rush. I think they just got angry,” said Maurice.

“And then the killers went out. The key to our game was our penalty kill. That was the change in momentum that got us emotionally engaged in the game. We fed off that. And then had the quick strikes right after that.”

Ehlers tied it 1-1 at 10:45 of the first, burying a shot just nine seconds into Winnipeg’s first power play of the night. His 19th of the year moved him into a tie for the team lead with Connor, which lasted all of 27 seconds.

Connor’s 20th, at 11:12, came off a great feed by Scheifele on a two-on-one rush. Scheifele then notched his 17th of the year at 13:54 with a beautiful backhander on a breakaway that chased Toronto goaltender Jack Campbell from the game.

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers celebrates his second goal of the game during the third period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Winnipeg Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers celebrates his second goal of the game during the third period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

“It’s unacceptable. I put the team and David (Rittich, the backup goalie) in a really tough spot. I know I can be a lot better than that,” Campbell told reporters following the game.

John Tavares got the Leafs within one at 6:47 of the second, but that’s as close as they’d get. Ehlers once again tied Connor at 5:34 of the final frame, stealing a puck from Mitch Marner and then poking it by Rittich. Connor, in a classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better,” pulled back in front once again with his 21st at 19:23, into an empty net.

The Jets have truly been road warriors this season, now with an NHL best 16-8-1 record away from Bell MTS Place.

“First of all, we feel like we’ve been on the road forever,” Scheifele said of possible keys to success. “We go out there, we’re not worried about the line matchups, we’re not worried about any of that. We’re just worried about playing hockey. We’ve got four lines, six defencemen and fantastic goaltenders that can all play in every situation. It’s great to have a deep team.”

That’s a trait that should serve Winnipeg well going forward, when the games really start to matter by mid-May.

“To be a good team road team, a bunch of things. You’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to be hard. You have to be comfortable, patient playing a simple game. The road game is the game that’s played in the playoffs. So I would take that,” said Maurice.

“I bring that (17 in 22) number up for a reason. Somebody told me that hasn’t happened since 1980, a team playing that many games (on the road), We don’t get a road game in our time zone. So when I looked at the schedule, that block from March 8 to the 19th of April for me we were either going to sink or swim on that. And maybe what’s happened is we found our identity in that.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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