WINNIPEG - In this latest fact-finding mission, the Winnipeg Jets were able to unearth an important discovery.
Despite dropping a 2-1 shootout decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night, the Jets cracked the code on one of the toughest assignments in the NHL - finally finding a way to contain the top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman.
The checking-plus line of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton not only held that high-octane trio off the scoresheet, but delivered the lone goal for the Jets, who once again found a way to regroup following a regulation loss with a determined effort.
A quick look at the top of the North Division standings shows the Jets now trail the Maple Leafs by four points (with Toronto holding a game in hand) and have 18 games remaining in the regular season.
The gap is not insurmountable, especially with four head-to-head meetings left in the season series.
However, by sweeping this two-game set - even with the benefit of a penalty-shot contest in the finale - the Maple Leafs withstood this latest challenge to the North Division throne.
Just how wide is that gap between the Jets and Maple Leafs?
“Not that far off,” said Copp. “I mean, a 1-1 game goes into overtime and a shootout. Last game, we weren’t our best in the first period, but outside of that, I think we really liked our game. So I don’t know.
“We take five of six there, they get four of four here. It’s going to be back and forth the entire year we feel like. We have a lot of confidence in our group so if we end up in a playoff series against them at some point we will be confident in our team and go from there.”
What is it that separates the Jets and Maple Leafs right now?
“I don’t think we know yet. I don’t think you can tell,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “There’s two teams with a lot of firepower up front that are trying to play a better defensive game, maybe, than they did last year. Certainly not the goaltending, because they were really good at both ends. Made big, big saves. While there wasn’t the free-flowing offence that we’ve seen in the past between Toronto and Winnipeg, there was quality offence in kind of bursts out there where the goalies were the difference.”
The Jets will take Saturday off before hitting the ice for a quick skate on Sunday, then welcome the Ottawa Senators for a rescheduled game on Monday night.
Finding a way to recharge the batteries is paramount for a Jets team that survived a stretch of 17 games in 30 days in March, while playing in four different time zones.
Going into this first-place showdown, one of the prominent storylines surrounded how the Jets would try to find an advantage when having the last change for the first time against the Maple Leafs this season.
Well, it turns out having the choice of who to match up against the Matthews line didn’t make much difference early, but the switch to the Lowry line yielded some important results.
Since Maurice made the move late in the first period on Wednesday, the Jets didn’t allow another point to the trio.
Much has been made of the strides the Lowry line has taken when it comes to adding an offensive element to the equation this season.
Copp (12) and Appleton (nine) have already established career highs for goals, while Lowry (seven goals) has bounced back impressively after an injury-plagued campaign.
“They’re great. (Lowry) and (Copp) have been tremendous in their time together over the last number of years. They allow us to run our bench a certain way,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. ”They bring a heaviness to our lineup for sure and Mason Appleton has been one of my brightest, biggest surprises of the year. He just works hard every single game. He’s fit in incredibly well on that line. He’s a little bit like Brandon Tanev in a way just with the energy and speed he brings. So a great line. A huge weapon for our team.”
Holding the Maple Leafs to just four goals in the two games (not including the shootout marker) and not allowing a power-play marker is something the Jets are encouraged by - even if it only led to a single point in the standings.
“We were focused on the other end of the ice. We did a good job in our defensive zone,” said Wheeler, quick to focus on the positives when asked about the limited offensive production. “We checked them extremely well. If their goal is going to be a knuckler from the point that just finds its way, so be it. Our goaltender was outstanding. Some of those saves in overtime were just incredible.”
As important as the Lowry line has been to a Jets team that already has six double-digit goal scorers in the lineup, this two-game stint reinforced the importance of getting some additional offensive output from its top guns in these marquee matchups.
The Jets were limited to just one other goal in the series, a power-play marker from defenceman Josh Morrissey on Wednesday night and that one came after surrendering a shorthanded marker.
As the Jets continue to search for chemistry among the top-two lines, that process remains very much a work in progress.
While there have been flashes since the latest change was made three games ago, the Maple Leafs did their part to neutralize the Jets' top-three goal scorers, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor.
But it was not for a lack of quality scoring chances, as the Jets watched Jack Campbell improve to 8-0 on the season by making two more saves in the shootout than his good friend Connor Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck was brilliant once again for the Jets, making 37 saves as he appeared in his 300th NHL game.
“We played a very good game. We shut them down,” said Hellebuyck. “If this was the playoffs, we’d still be in overtime right now waiting for a break. We played the right way and we ran into a hot goaltender. You can’t be too mad about the result because we put a good game forward.”
Hellebuyck remains the great equalizer - and could ultimately be the difference-maker should these two teams clash in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Par for the course. I think he’s the best in the league, and we’re lucky to have him,” said Copp. “He makes big save after big save, especially on that penalty kill in overtime. He’s just so solid back there and we have all the confidence in the world in him.
“It’s nothing we didn’t already know, but it just further shows just how elite he is.”
Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe took some time during his post-game zoom availability to offer a compliment about the Jets — and this didn't sound like hollow praise.
“They’re a good team that makes it hard on us,” said Keefe. “We just come away from these two games with, I think, an even greater respect for their team and what they’re capable of and just how good we need to be able to be to beat them in regulation.”
While it’s true the Maple Leafs have taken four of the six meetings so far, two of them required extra time (so the Jets are 2-2-2 in the season series).
There are still plenty of things for the two teams to learn about one another before the end of the regular season.
It won’t take long for the Jets to get another crack at the Maple Leafs as they’ll meet on April 15 at the end of a five-game road trip.
But before the Jets get that chance, they must prepare to face a hardworking Ottawa Senators team in three of the next five games and also see how things shape up against a Montreal Canadiens team that is rolling after dealing with a Covid scare.
Things suddenly look a lot more congested in the North, with the Jets and Edmonton Oilers tied for second place with 47 points, but the Canadiens actually slipping ahead of both teams in winning percentage (.621 to .618) while needing to make up five games in hand.
After missing the final two periods of Wednesday’s game with an undisclosed injury, Jets captain Blake Wheeler kept his iron man streak alive, appearing in his 193rd consecutive game.
When asked to elaborate about what knocked him out of the game and left his availability as a game-time decision, Wheeler chose instead to keep the intrigue alive.
“I’d prefer not to,” said Wheeler, who has missed only six games in 10 seasons with the Jets. “But I appreciate the concern.”
Wheeler’s durability throughout the course of his career has been impressive.
“Yeah, he’s the heart of our team,” said Jets defenceman Neal Pionk. “And I didn’t realize it, I guess, until I got here but he’s for sure one of the tougher guys I’ve played with. I mean, to see the stuff that he’s battled through, to see the minimal games that he’s missed throughout his career and then finally getting to play with him, I see why now and how tough he is.”
The Jets revealed some injury news earlier in the day, announcing that defenceman Nathan Beaulieu had undergone successful surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Beaulieu was already dealing with a broken bone in his hand after blocking a shot from John Tavares in a game against the Maple Leafs on Mar. 9.
“Three broken bones last year, another one this year, the shoulder, scratching and clawing to kind of be a player for us. He's a really important part of that room because of it,” said Maurice. “The people that invest a lot, that give a lot to their teammates...it's so painful when they go down.
“But once we kind of knew what he was dealing with, the next question is can we make it right, can we get him back to where he's, you hope. He had a good surgery, so that brings some positivity into it. Those things are tough rehabs and they take a long time. But we believe that when he's done he's going to be back, and he deserves that right. The one thing we know about (Beaulieu) is he's not going to milk it. He's going to be back the day he's supposed to be back and ready to play, for sure.”
With the NHL trade deadline coming up on April 12, the Jets were already in the market to bolster the defence corps.
And with Beaulieu sidelined for the rest of the season, including the playoffs, the need to add to the blue line remains the top priority for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.