The Winnipeg Jets sure are an experience. This team can tear apart good squads with sound defenses one day, then look like a peewee squad the next. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets really needed to bring their A-game. This Leafs team, top-ranked in the North Division, was proving to be a bit of an inconsistent but dangerous force. Would the Jets prevail in a battle of the upper crust teams in Canada?
The First Period
The opening 20 minutes were the most evenly-played moments of the whole game. The Jets and Leafs seemed to content to create opportunities off the rush. Winnipeg didn’t get many quality looks in the low slot area and seemed to be trying for more tipped deflections. The Leafs had a notably easier time breaching the space in front of Connor Hellebuyck, turning up the heat early.
Toronto ended up being rewarded for their efforts on a whole sequence of nonsense from the Jets. Nate Beaulieu neglected his assignment in the neutral zone to try for a hit and completely missed Zach Hyman, who eased by him. Kyle Connor was the closest skater to Hyman....and did nothing at all to impede the Leaf player. Hyman scored a beautiful backhander that felt entirely avoidable. I don’t care if you’re a 40-goal scorer; at least try to disrupt the attacker if no one else is stepping up.
The Jets were able to quickly respond on a pleasant power play from Andrew Copp, who tipped a slot deflection to even the game. Copp was almost entirely responsible for the goal, keeping the puck alive in the slot before hitting the left flank to start a cycle. He reset in front of Andersen and earned a deflection for his efforts. That is the sort of effort this team should be committing to. Unfortunately, the Leafs responded not long after, with Auston Matthews getting his own tipped goal on a power play. The Jets have conceded a lot of deflections in recent times, which is concerning. If teams know sticks will be free in the slot, the Jets need to make the adjustment as soon as possible.
The Second Period
I was hoping Winnipeg would come out of the intermission looking refreshed, but the Jets proceeded to get pasted by Toronto’s aggressive forecheck. We’re used to the Jets being slow starters, but opening the game strongly before quickly fading out is a somewhat newer turn. Winnipeg could not cleanly exit the defensive zone on almost every shift, and it was a minor miracle every time they got offensive zone possession. What felt especially frustrating was that rush chances against Toronto usually created a modicum of danger in front of Andersen. The Leafs don’t handle pressure well! Winnipeg’s inability to exploit this felt like an omen.
Against all odds, the Jets somehow convinced Matthews to deflect a Josh Morrissey point shot past Andersen. If Matthews had just let the shot go, I don’t think Toronto would have found itself tied. Such is the way of the fickle hockey gods. The Jets then added insult to injury when Best Jet Nikolaj Ehlers pulled off an unbelievable feed to Kyle Connor for a tap-in. The pass was threaded between Andersen’s stickblade and left pad from behind the net. I don’t even know what to say. That is stuff you can’t even pull off in video games. Winnipeg somehow escaped the middle period up 3-2, much to our delight. On a less delightful note, Beaulieu blocked a shot and left the period, failing to return for the rest of the game.
The Third Period
The middle frame wasn’t great, but the final regulation period was a whole lot worse. Winnipeg was completely shut down for the entire 20-minute stretched as Toronto gashed the Jets slot repeatedly. Marner, Matthews, Nylander, and just about every Leaf in between took point-blank shots at Hellebuyck. When I think back to extraordinary periods Hellebuyck has given us, this will stand as one of his absolute finest. The American netminder was sensational, stopping everything between the Earth and Sun. I try to avoid hyperbolic statements but Hellebuyck absolutely deserves every single star on the night. He was unbelievable in net and stole both points.
Hellebuyck’s performance was even more important after the Jets nearly blew a 4-2 lead. Mason Appleton scored the fourth of the night on a great drive, but Matthews scratched a goal back with the goalie pulled to make us all sweat. I don’t know how Toronto didn’t tie the game on the 6-on-5 sequence but Hellebuyck deserves all credit. He carried the team on his back and earned both points in a tremendous performance.
Connor Friggin’ Hellebuyck.
That’s it. That’s the takeaway.
A Beaulieu injury opens the door for Niku and Stanley.
I wanted Nate to be out of the line-up, but I did not want it due to injury. I’d have much preferred the team to give Beaulieu some time off to get Niku or Stanley ice-time. This team owes it to the kids to let them earn a spot and both have been better than Beau in limited stints. If Nate is out for any stretch of time, the two young blueliners should have a chance to grab the open spot with DeMelo.
Winnipeg was lucky to win. Make the next one less reliant on fortune.
The Leafs ripped Winnipeg’s slot presence to pieces. We know Toronto has this capability but one stats service had the xG in favor of the Leafs 4.9 to Winnipeg’s 2.8. That’s pretty ungood, to put it mildly. The Jets have to get a better handle on Thursday’s game because I’m not sure Hellebuyck can keep bailing this team out.