Jets offence hitting stride after intense win over Maple Leafs

Blake Wheeler had two points in his 1000th career game as the Jets defeated the Maple Leafs 6-3.

WINNIPEG -- It’s safe to say that deep dive into the offensive game and what needed to improve has yielded some impressive results.

That offensive famine the Winnipeg Jets endured while scoring nine times in seven games has quickly been replaced by an outright onslaught.

On the heels of an eight-goal outburst against the New Jersey Devils, the Jets followed that up with a 6-3 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night.

You can be sure that some folks figured Jets head coach Paul Maurice was simply trying to instill confidence in his charges when he said going into this weekend’s games that in many ways, he felt parts of the offence were better than they’ve ever been.

Instead of worrying about losing six of seven games, the Jets have won three of the past four and improved to 12-8-4 as they get set to host the Carolina Hurricanes to close out this four-game homestand.

Aside from another offensive eruption, the intensity of this contest was one of the topics of conversation, thanks to some bad blood entering the equation during the third period.

Pierre-Luc Dubois got into a wrestling match with Auston Matthews, resulting in coincidental roughing minors that had the two players continue jarring with one another even after they made their way to the penalty box.

Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon got into a spirited scrap with Kyle Clifford and late in the contest, Logan Stanley and Wayne Simmonds dropped the gloves after Simmonds had cross-checked Josh Morrissey.

Another sequence saw Jets defenceman Neal Pionk catch Rasmus Sandin with his leg when he went to check him, which resulted in Jason Spezza taking a run at Pionk when he was falling to the ice and in a vulnerable position.

Both Pionk and Spezza will have hearings with the NHL's Department of Player Safety.

“Today was just a good hockey game, right? It had a little bit of everything in it,” said Maurice. “There was some energy and emotion, as there should be. This game had some leftovers from games past. It got a little heated out there, but that’s good.”

When two teams play one another 10 times like these two did last season in the North Division, there is bound to be a little extra emotion in the air.

As for Dubois, he’s up to 12 goals and 22 points this season after a two-point night and he showed once again that he’s not intimidated going up against the likes of Matthews.

That swagger is something that continues to serve him -- and his teammates -- well during this impressive bounce-back campaign.

“He’s a really good player in this league, scored a nice goal, (he’s) got a lethal shot,” said Dubois, when asked about getting involved physically with Matthews. ”Yeah, whatever. You don’t go into a game, I mean, personally I don’t go into a game, I know maybe some guys do, but I don’t go into a game thinking when is my time going to come to fight or whatever. I just go out there and try to be the best player I can for my team. Sometimes it gets a little rough out there, it’s hockey. That’s just the way the game is played.”

Although nobody is campaigning for 10 meetings, this game serves as an example of why it would be great for the Jets and Maple Leafs to have more than just a home-and-home series each season.

The other narrative that has quickly shifted for the Jets is the one surrounding the power play.

After going through a rough 2-for-34 stretch, the Jets have scored four times in the last nine opportunities (including a 3-for-5 stretch on Sunday), quieting some of the questions about the structural changes and personnel groupings.

The Jets’ top unit struck three times in this game, with Dubois, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele all finding the back of the net.

Dubois’ goal came on a nifty pass play in front of the net, Connor’s came on a beautiful one-timer, and Scheifele’s came off the rush, thanks to a zone entry with speed.

“Like I said when it was struggling, it was the least of my concerns,” said Wheeler. “I think we’re kind of in transition from what gave us a lot of success over the years and now trying to figure out a new way to have success. It’s going to look a little bit different and take some time to find our chemistry but it started coming. For me, I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying for years: We got, besides myself, a bunch of guys out there that can put the puck in the net and my job is to get it to them. As a guy that likes to move it around, it’s a pretty good luxury to have finding opening space for those guys and knowing they’re going to put it in the net.”

Prior to the game, Wheeler was honoured for appearing in his 1,000th NHL game and received a silver stick to commemorate the moment.

Among the players to send well wishes via video were longtime linemates Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd and a special cameo appearance from Dustin Byfuglien.

Byfuglien prefers to keep a low profile and hasn’t spoken to reporters since deciding to walk away from the game during the 2019-20 season, but he took the time to share some thoughts -- and hearing his voice sent the crowd into a frenzy.

During the post-game session with reporters, Wheeler sat at the podium with Dubois, who was sporting a sleeveless Wheeler 1,000 shirt that was designed by Jets forward Jansen Harkins.

With his parents, Jim and Pat, and longtime agent Matt Keator in the crowd and with his wife Sam and three children with him on the ice, Wheeler did his best to take it all in.

“There's a lot of buildup, a lot of anticipation,” said Wheeler. “You want to absorb it and enjoy it and soak in every moment, but at the same time it's nice to move on," he said. "It's weird being front and centre when you play a team sport. It was a special day for my family."

Wheeler isn’t quite sure where the silver stick is going to end up, but he’s a bit concerned about the silver mini-sticks that were given to his kids.

“It’s heavy as hell. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Probably in the closet right now. We’ll see,” said Wheeler. “I’m a little bit nervous… my kids have three of those things. A couple of lost teeth, probably. I haven’t had a chance to really look at it but my first impression is it’s got some girth to it.”

Finding a way to get a victory in a game against the Maple Leafs was what truly made the evening special for Wheeler.

“Losing in the NHL is a quiet place. The bus is quiet, the room’s quiet and no matter how big a celebration you had, it’s a disappointing night and now he gets to do the exact opposite,” said Maurice. “So there’s lots of cheers, he gets to tell a story and they’ll laugh and tell jokes all night, so it’s a great thing for everybody because it’s a night that you truly, win or lose, you’re going to carry that night, but winning makes it a whole lot better.

“It was a wired room before, right, and there was lots of joking, lots of laughing. They were pulling for him. They have a lot of respect for him. He’s been a great mentor to a lot of those players in that room and they want to be part of an enjoyable night, so a win makes that possible.”

On the ice, Wheeler chipped in two assists to give him five helpers during the past two games.

Although he was denied on a breakaway, Wheeler has been showing signs of getting going, first with his legs and then with his ability to distribute the puck and generate some dangerous scoring chances.

“It’s odd. Having yet to score a goal is certainly unchartered territory for me,” said Wheeler, who is up to 12 assists in 19 games. “You guys have watched me long enough. You know it’s coming. When one hits the net, everything’s going to change.

“Do I feel cursed on breakaways? I feel like I’m just hitting the goalie. I just feel like I’m trying to speed it up too much. When you haven’t scored a goal in so long, there’s a little bit of tension there. It’s just not as fluid as it would be otherwise. It’s going to come.”

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