'Measuring-stick series' or not, time to see how Jets stack up vs. Leafs

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discuss if the Winnipeg Jets will be the only team in the North Division to challenge the Toronto Maple Leafs for top spot.

WINNIPEG — The measuring stick game or series is mostly a media creation, it’s a narrative that players and coaches rarely have any interest in engaging in.

When it comes to the question-and-answer part associated with it, there is very little to be gained by making any such declaration.

This isn’t about providing bulletin-board material or ammunition for other teams, but the simple fact remains that if things don’t go well for the Winnipeg Jets, there will be questions about the cost associated with those losses.

If a team doesn’t measure up, where do they go from there?

Even if it does go well, that doesn’t mean the Jets get to change their approach against the other five teams in the North Division.

As this three-game series between the Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs begins on Tuesday in Toronto, it doesn’t really matter what you call it or if the parties involved want to play along.

“You’re so much more focused on your life and your journey, where you’re at, so it’s a new experience for us,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “We had a real tough game and now we want to come back and get on the right track again, with the full awareness that we’re going to see a real quality team. Over the course of the year, you see that a lot.

“Every time you play a team that is one or two in the division, you know you have to be at your best to beat them. It’s different this year because there is only one first-place team you see, and you’re trying to chase them. In terms of measuring stick, when you’ll come to the rink, you’ll know the other team has some really high-end guys on their team.”

No, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a season-defining moment for either the Jets or the Maple Leafs, but you can be darn sure that the players, coaches and management teams on both sides are curious to see how they stack up against one another as the midway point approaches.

Even if they’re doing their very best to not get into any sort of verbal sparring contest on a public forum.

“You could say it’s a measuring stick, but I think every team within our division can bring something different to the table. When you play each team nine or 10 times in one season you just have to worry about that individual series,” said Jets forward Paul Stastny. “For us, we lost the first game to them, but they are a whole different team and we’re a whole different team. We’re just excited for the challenge.

“They’ve just got a lot of finishers — like every team — but they don’t need as many chances to produce as many goals. They play a good transition game, they have good puck possession and they have a lot of creativity. All four lines have different guys who play different ways and sometimes it can create havoc, and sometimes if you play it the right way you can create chances for yourself.”

The timing for these games is fascinating, with the Jets coming off a rare blowout loss to the Montreal Canadiens and the Maple Leafs losers of consecutive games to the Vancouver Canucks.

Just last week, the Maple Leafs heard all about how the Edmonton Oilers had an opportunity to make their own statement in the first-place showdown.

Well, that ended with the Oilers getting swept in the three-game series and outscored 13-1 in the process.

Instead of building on that dominant showing, the Maple Leafs hit a rare speed bump, so you can be sure they’ll be looking to get back to the detailed approach that has made them so successful to date.

As for the Jets, they had won six of seven games before getting thumped, so it’s not like you could have made the argument the Jets were trending toward a suspect showing.

This is just the second of 10 meetings between the two clubs and the Jets have played 22 games since the last game against the Maple Leafs.

Although the final score was only 3-1, it was flattering to the Jets thanks to a 35-save performance from goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

The Jets were loose defensively and didn’t ever get their skating legs going or generate much offensively.

“Looking back to that first game, we didn't play very good that night. We're a lot better team than what we showed,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “We're getting a lot closer to the identity and the way we want to play — that’s big, that’s fast and kind of imposing our will and that's from controlling the puck and playing with pace. That's going to be something we try and do.

"Obviously, the Leafs are rolling. They've lost a couple (games), but they've had a great start to the year and we know it's going to be a tough test for us.”

Speaking of Hellebuyck, he will be looking to get locked in after getting pulled for the first time this season.

It’s been an interesting stretch for Hellebuyck, who has allowed three goals or more in seven of his past eight starts.

The numbers haven’t told the whole story either, as he’s sprinkled in a pair of 40-save outings during the same span of time.

The point is that the Jets have dipped to 14th in the NHL in goals against per game (2.83) after occupying a spot in the top 10 for a considerable stretch of time, while the Maple Leafs are holding steady in fifth (2.42).

For all the talk about the Maple Leafs' potent offence (which is second in the NHL at 3.46 goals per game), it’s their commitment to getting the puck back defensively that has caught the attention of teams across the NHL — and specifically in the North Division.

With recent history as a guide, high-event hockey figures to be on the agenda, with an abundance of skill sure to be on display.

Resisting the urge to get into a game of trading scoring chances and staying disciplined will be essential if the Jets are to make up any ground in the standings this week.

“It's going to be important to contain their speed. They're a terrific transition team, they feast off turnovers and they've got some real high-end talent up front,” said Lowry. “So, it's going to be important that we try and get some zone time on them. To try and limit the free chances that they get just by careless plays by us. So, it's managing the puck properly and staying out of the box. They have a lethal power play as well.”

That power play is leading the NHL, with an efficiency rate of 31.2 per cent, so even on the rare nights when the Maple Leafs might not be operating at full potential, special teams have supplied a boost.

As the Jets find themselves in the chase position, it will be interesting to see how they respond.

It’s an area they've been able to excel at so far, posting a record of 6-0-1 coming off a loss.

Avoiding consecutive losses in regulation is one of the reasons the Jets have been able to stay within striking distance of first place, while so many of the other teams in the North have endured lengthy dry spells or gone through a crisis or two.

Whether you want to call it a measuring stick series or not, this figures to be appointment viewing.

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