You wouldn’t want to call the Winnipeg Jets’ 3-1 win over the home team at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night a potential preview of the Stanley Cup final to played out this spring. And you wouldn’t want to call it payback for the Leafs’ 7-2 thumping of the Jets in the season opener.
That said, back in October did anyone imagine we’d be talking about a matchup between two teams guaranteed of places in the post-season with a couple of weeks left on the schedule, looking to much bigger things down the line?
Winnipeg’s victory wasn’t anyone’s idea of a barn-burner, to be sure. The Leafs had come from behind for a win on the road against the Islanders Friday night and their labours showed in the second period. After a goal by Patrick Marleau two minutes after the first intermission, Toronto seemed to be flagging and the Jets, rested and laying in wait, basically dictated play over the balance of the frame. All the offence Winnipeg would need came from blueliners. Just before the midway point in the game Josh Morrissey tied the game on a shot from the point and Dustin Byfuglien fired a puck with eyes that made it through traffic on a power play about a minute later for the eventual winning goal.
You couldn’t blame Leafs netminder Curtis McElhinney on either. Toronto’s erstwhile backup only saw the puck on replay. On both those goals you could see the significant difference between the two teams this night. The Jets’ forwards were just too big and too tough for the Leafs’ d-men to get their attention, never mind moving them. McElhinney couldn’t find the puck going because Paul Statsny was on his doorstep, casting shadows on the goalie.
Andrew Copp’s goal late in the second was unneeded insurance and not for a shift in the third did you think the home team was going to rally.
Many had hoped to see a showdown of between Auston Matthews, last year’s Calder Trophy winner, and the Jets’ Patrik Laine, he of 43 goals so far this season. There might be classic showdowns between the two top picks from the 2016 draft but Saturday night they mostly blended in with the scenery. Late in the game Laine had a chance to pick up a 44th, with Matthews given chase, but the big Finn must have lost the puck in his beard and over-skated it.
Connor Hellebuyck turned aside 28 of 29 shots for his 41st win of the season and was named first star for what that’s worth. “Our details in our own end were perfect,” the Jets goalie said. This was doubtlessly true. The Leafs’ forwards were busy in the first couldn’t make any headway against the big bodies on Winnipeg’s back-end. Really, all over the ice, the Jets’ physical advantage was painfully plain. On the forecheck you saw Blake Wheeler cold-press the juice out of Kasperi Kapanen against the board. At the other end of the ice, McElhinney got snow-showered by Byfuglien with impunity—maybe the Leafs could have called for security to remove Big Buff but that would be about it.
It was a contest between two emerging teams but it sure looked like the Jets have so far emerged bigger. Would it be that way on another night, under different circumstances? Maybe, but we’ll have to wait until next season or seasons after that to have a pretty good idea.
Per the standings and bad luck of the draw, the Jets would face Nashville, the Western Conference heavyweights, in the second round if form holds, while the Maple Leafs will have to emerge from the Group of Death, most likely playing Boston and Tampa Bay or Tampa Bay and Boston and starting each series on the road. A lot of things would have to get turned upside down and a lot of stars would have to line up to see the two Canadian teams in the playoffs be the last two teams standing.
That said, you could see how maybe the Jets probably should get past the Wild in the first round and cause the Predators some serious grief in the second. Yes, the game circa 2018 is speed-oriented, faster than ever, and all that, but if you have bodies in motion at the approximately the same speed, bet on the bigger ones to survive. Hellebuyck would seem a decent bet to steal a game or two in a series and if Pekke Rinne were to get the yips like he did against Pittsburgh last June … well, these are hypotheticals that you won’t have to wait long to see play out in hard, cold reality.
The Leafs’ core of young talents is of course more celebrated the Jets’ and perhaps possesses the higher ceiling though not by so terribly much—go to your separate corners and argue the merits of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner versus Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor. But the way the league’s conference and division grids are laid out, you’d have to like the Jets’ chances to be playing later than Toronto this spring. Next season or the season after that, all bets are off. And when next season’s schedule comes out, yeah, you might look at the match-ups between the two teams as both showdowns between Matthews and Laine and previews of potential match-ups that guarantee the Cup coming back to Canada for the first time since ’93.