Maple Leafs-Jets matchup creating buzz north and south of border

The Maple Leafs are treating their match up with the Jets as more than just another game and realize going up against Winnipeg is going to be a big challenge.

WINNIPEG – Up here in Canada, this is a game that needs no extra sales push. The points of interest around seeing the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Winnipeg Jets are easily accessible to any hardcore fan of the sport.

But what makes Wednesday’s matchup at MTS Centre truly unique is who else will be under the roof inside the NHL’s coziest arena: NBC, with its lead play-by-play team of Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, is due to broadcast the game nationally in the U.S.

For context on how unusual that is consider that Emrick last called a game featuring two Canadian teams during the 1989 Stanley Cup final between Calgary and Montreal. His last visit to this city came for Jets 1.0 at the old Winnipeg Arena.

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During an appearance on "Prime Time Sports" with Bob McCown this week, Emrick struggled to remember any Canada vs. Canada matchup he’d worked in the regular season during a broadcasting career that’s spanned four decades.

"No, not regular season. I cannot recall it," said Emrick. "But boy is it ever going to be worth it. This is going to be fun for us."

Emrick told McCown that NBC is looking to broaden its horizons by showcasing more stars in the sport.

There is no shortage of stories to tell here. You have an American captain of the Jets in Blake Wheeler of Plymouth, Minn., and an American driver of the Leafs in Auston Matthews of Scottsdale, Ariz. – the NHL’s current leader in both goals (10) and points (16).

"You have No. 34 for Toronto who was born in the States. You have 10 members of the Winnipeg Jets who are from the United States," said Emrick. "You have [former Michigan Wolverines coach] Red Berenson probably salivating over seeing four of his former players in the lineup combined for the two teams."

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In Winnipeg and Toronto, you also have two teams with Stanley Cup intentions. There is every possibility one or both will be getting national air time in multiple countries come playoff time.

But getting this type of showcase now, in the early weeks of the regular season, feels significant. With Sportsnet broadcasting the game coast-to-coast in Canada and NBC airing it in the U.S., it might be the most-watched regular-season contest outside of the Winter Classic outdoor game on Jan. 1.

"Well I think it’s important," said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck of Commerce, Mich. "We want to grow this game and we want to grow the NHL and the league and being able to get that national coverage is huge."

Anyone being introduced to the Leafs and Jets are not dropping in on a rivalry, per se, but a game that piques the interest of both sides. They have followed parallel tracks in rising from the ashes – both getting a huge surge from the 2016 NHL Draft, when Toronto selected Matthews at No. 1 and Winnipeg took sniper Patrick Laine at No. 2.

Those players have scored the second- and third-most goals league-wide since that day, trailing only Alex Ovechkin.

The teams are also vying to end our country’s perplexing Stanley Cup drought, with Winnipeg surging ahead in that race last spring by reaching the Western Conference final. As expected, the Jets (6-2-1) and Leafs (6-3-0) have been among the NHL’s best early this season, so this game will provide an indication of where things stand.

"There will be a good buzz in the building," said Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice. "There’s a real exciting team coming to town, lots of offence and it’ll be a great game."

"I love it. I love playing in Winnipeg, they’ve got great fans," said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. "They’re always so passionate and it’s a hostile environment."

Despite only playing twice per season, the teams have been known to put on a show in the past. You’ll see few more memorable regular-season games than the one they played here on Oct. 19, 2016, when Winnipeg erased a 4-0 deficit and saw Patrik Laine complete his hat trick with the overtime winner.

That came in just his fourth NHL game – and right after Matthews was stopped on a breakaway at the other end.

"It was a pretty amazing game overall," said Laine. "Trailing 4-0 and then coming back and winning it in overtime. It was pretty special and scoring the hatty as well. It was pretty cool."

With a broader audience set to tune in for the next chapter of Leafs-Jets on Wednesday, it would be nice if they delivered another classic. There’s certainly enough starpower to make it happen.

"I think the fans in the States love hockey and this should be a really fast, skilled, very competitive game," said Maurice. "So it’s good for the game. There are some great teams in the States, for sure, but it’s good for them to see some of the teams up north."


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