For 46 minutes on the Saturday night, the Winnipeg Jets were putting the final touches on a pretty good early-season story of resilience.
Beaten rather thoroughly by the Toronto Maple Leafs at home on Wednesday, the Jets went into Detroit on Friday and exited with a come-from-behind 2-1 victory. Then, well into the third period on Saturday in Toronto, the Jets looked like they would back that result up with a win over the Leafs.
They led 2-0, Jacob Trouba had knocked Toronto star Auston Matthews out of the game with a solid, clean hit, Connor Hellebuyck was stopping every puck aimed his way — the Jets were making the fast Leafs look slow and it seemed the heat in Winnipeg over some inconsistent Jets play this season would be reduced with a second straight road triumph.
Then the roof caved in. Or, more specifically, then the Jets defence started coughing the puck up.
With no sign at all the Leafs were likely to come back, Mitch Marner raced into the corner of the Jets’ zone with six minutes elapsed in the third, relieved the always reliable Josh Morrissey of the puck and relayed it quickly to Nazem Kadri.
Kadri, bumped up higher in the Toronto lineup to replace the injured Matthews, snapped a wrist shot inside the far post for his second goal in two games after going the first nine without any. Suddenly, the Leafs had life.
Still, the Jets seemed to be in control, and continued to mostly keep the Leafs to the outside.
“I liked our game,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “The first two periods for sure. But we couldn’t close it out.”
With just over three minutes left, Dustin Byfuglien retrieved the puck behind the Winnipeg net and tried to blindly reverse the puck off the boards. The puck hit Marner, who bumped it into the slot. Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner got there before any Winnipeg player, and whipped it high over Hellebuyck’s catching mitt to tie the game.
Understandably, that got the Scotiabank Arena crowd roaring even louder than they had been after Kadri’s goal. The Leafs came right back down the ice. Zach Hyman bumped the puck behind the Winnipeg goal line where he and John Tavares battled for possession with Trouba and Mark Scheifele, who had scored Winnipeg’s second goal on a breakaway.
Hyman moved the puck six inches to Tavares, who extricated himself from Trouba’s checking efforts and relayed the puck to Kasperi Kapanen in front.
Kapanen’s shot elevated quickly, either by design or with the aid of Morrissey’s outstretched stick, and found a tiny opening over Hellebuyck’s left shoulder with what proved to be the winning goal in a 3-2 Leaf triumph.
All three Toronto goals were scored by first winning possession behind the Winnipeg net, not a good commentary on the work of the Jets defence corps.
“Always, you should be able to keep a two-goal lead,” said slumping Jets winger Patrik Laine. “That can’t happen again.”
The win gave the Leafs a season sweep of the series against Winnipeg, and now the two teams can only meet again in an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final.
It’s only bragging rights, but still, the Jets had established themselves as Canada’s best team with their performance in last spring’s playoffs and 7-3-1 start to this season, and now they’ve given up theoretical ground to the Leafs as to which NHL club north of the border is the best.
“We liked our road game. Our heads were in the right place,” lamented Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who set up Kyle Connor for the first goal of the game.
“Unfortunately, the end result spoiled a good effort.”
Trouba’s hit on Matthews, and Laine’s continued struggles, were sub-stories to the main plot of the Jets disappointing inability to hold that 2-0 third period lead.
Trouba’s hit was a clean one. With the two teams playing four-on-four hockey to start the second after John Tavares and Tyler Myers had been sent off together for some roughhousing at the end of the first, Matthews corralled the puck deep along the right boards in the Winnipeg zone and immediately turned hard to his left and headed to the net.
He got to the goalmouth and got a shot off, but at the same moment Trouba drove his shoulder into Matthews with a hard hit. The Leaf centre buckled over, grabbed at his left shoulder and skated slowly to the Leaf bench. After sitting there for a moment, he left for the dressing room and didn’t return.
“He was just going to the net, I tried to make a hit,” said Trouba. “I hope he’s alright.”
Trouba had no doubts his hit was a fair one.
“I thought it was okay,” he said.
The Jets were up 1-0 at that point, and it certainly seemed like a turning point as the Leafs were in a fog for the rest of the second. For Trouba, it was a strong moment in another strong season, one in which he’s been averaging 22 minutes a night, teaming with Morrissey to make up Winnipeg’s shut down defensive pair. His future in Manitoba remains unclear after he went to arbitration last summer, and most believe he’ll likely be going back to visit with the salary arbitration office this summer.
The chances of him ever signing a long-term deal in Winnipeg seem bleak, but for now, his value to the Jets on a nightly basis is well-established. His night on Saturday was a good one and including a gorgeous shot block on a Leaf power play in the second, at least it was a good one until the comeback in the third. The 24-year-old blue-liner was on the ice for two of the three Toronto goals.
“It’s a long season,” he sighed. “These games are going to happen. You’ve got to have a short memory.”
Laine, meanwhile, was basically invisible again. He started the game on the fourth line, moved around as the game wore on and managed one shot in 16 minutes.
“Everybody knows I’m not playing well,” he said. “I started on the fourth line, and that was a result of the way I’ve been playing.”
Taken second after Matthews in the 2016 draft, Laine has three goals in 12 games this season after scoring 80 goals for the Jets in his first two seasons. He has no points and just five shots in his past five games.
Just as a second shoulder injury in two seasons now potentially clouds Toronto’s upcoming contract negotiations with Matthews, Laine’s ongoing slump could make his contract talks with the Jets that much more complicated either this season or next summer unless he busts out relatively soon.
“I’ve just got to work on playing at the level I’ve been used to playing at,” he said. “I’ve got to earn those minutes back.”