Too much on line for Jets-Maple Leafs rematch to be slugfest

The Winnipeg Jets scored in all three rounds of the shootout to edge the Buffalo Sabres 3-2.

WINNIPEG — Never mind the months of build-up and anticipation, this is not likely going to be a knock-’em-down-throw-’em-out, turn-back-the-clock North Division slugfest.

This is not the 10th meeting of a shortened season and bragging rights for an entire nation are not technically on the line.

The fact of the matter is neither team can afford to make this a grudge match.

The stakes are simply too high and given the vastly different spaces they occupy in their respective conference standings, it’s going to be one of those times when turning the other cheek and taking a number is probably the order of the day.

That’s not to suggest this won’t be intense, high-event hockey, since that’s often what’s on the menu when the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs get together.

But if you’re looking for any scores to be settled or retribution to be sought, chances are that you’ve come to the wrong place.

That’s not to suggest for one second that all is forgotten when it comes to how the Maple Leafs feel about Pierre-Luc Dubois making life difficult for Auston Matthews, who just so happens to be chasing his 50th goal of the campaign on Thursday when the Jets visit the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.

The Maple Leafs also haven’t forgotten the knee-on-knee collision between Jets blue-liner Neal Pionk and Rasmus Sandin — the one that sent the Toronto D-man to the sidelines with an injury and saw Pionk serve a two-game suspension for his misdeed.

Nor have the Jets forgiven Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza for his knee to the head of Pionk in retaliation, an out-of-character move that resulted in a six-game suspension for Spezza that was ultimately reduced to four games after an appeal.

Pionk ended up missing three games with a concussion as a result of that play, so you can be sure he’ll be on high alert once the puck drops as well.

Ultimately, the only messages these two teams will be interested in sending one another are related to what the final score is going to show.

The Jets got the upper hand back in December, bouncing the Maple Leafs 6-3, but that came against goalie Joseph Woll and he hasn’t made an NHL start since that night — though it should be noted the Maple Leafs were far too loose defensively on that night and Woll still finished with 35 saves.

Winnipeg also had a distinct schedule advantage, since Toronto had played the previous night in Minnesota against the Wild.

Well, those roles are reversed this time around, as the Maple Leafs are well-rested and coming off a 6-4 victory over the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, while the Jets needed a shootout to defeat the Buffalo Sabres by a 3-2 score and will be playing on consecutive days.

“No doubt it’s going to be a tough test. They’re one of the best teams in the league,” Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry, whose club improved to 20-15-5 since he took over from Paul Maurice on Dec. 17, told reporters in Buffalo. “The big thing for us is short travel. We’ll have a nice early night. We’re not the only team that’s played back to back this year. The biggest thing is we’ll be energized and we’ll be ready to start the game.”

Did we mention the Jets will be missing leading point-getter Kyle Connor and defenceman Nate Schmidt after the duo landed in the NHLs COVID-19 protocols on Wednesday morning and won’t be able to suit up again until next Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings, missing three important games at this critical juncture of the season?

That’s sure to be part of the storylines to monitor for a Jets club that has now gone 11-4-1 to pull within two points of the Vegas Golden Knights for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, though the Dallas Stars are one point ahead of the Jets as well and hold three games in hand.

“It was a bummer. They were really close to getting through the whole year without having to go through it,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who scored a goal to extend his point streak to six games and added the shootout clincher. “Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be and not ideal timing, either. That's kind of been the story of our year in terms of COVID and how it has affected our team. I guess, with that, the good news is we've dealt with it before and we've had to deal with it and it's never easy to lose two guys, especially two guys of that calibre, so it was definitely a good night for guys to step up.”

The Maple Leafs don’t care about the Jets' tough circumstances, nor will they be showing them any mercy.

They’ve got concerns of their own, primarily when it comes to jockeying for position in the Atlantic Division standings and tidying up a few areas of their collective game before the Stanley Cup playoffs arrive.

If the Jets don’t manage the puck better than they did against the Sabres, they could run into some difficulty with the Maple Leafs' transition game and high-end finishing ability.

But despite needing extra time in each of the past three games, the Jets have been resilient down the stretch and that’s one of the reasons they haven’t faded into the background.

Instead, they’ve won three consecutive games for the first time since early January and will attempt to record their first four-game winning streak since late October on Thursday.

“I mean, at this point of the year… we just need wins. It doesn’t matter how,” said Dubois. “I think we all agree that we can play better. We have to play better, but at the end of the day, we get the two points and that’s what we need right now.”

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck came up with another fantastic performance on Wednesday, making 35 saves in what was his league-leading 57th start of the season.

Neither Lowry nor Hellebuyck were providing any clues as to whether he would be getting the call again in goal, but the smart money is on Hellebuyck going back-to-back since he got a breather last Friday when Patrik Laine and the Columbus Blue Jackets were in town.

Hellebuyck had more pressing matters to attend to after speaking to reporters — and he wasn’t about to reveal the secret anyway.

“I don’t know,” said Hellebuyck. “All I know is that there’s some chicken wings in the locker room calling my name.”

With a performance like that one, Hellebuyck certainly earned himself a cheat meal, whether he’s playing on Thursday or rooting for backup Eric Comrie instead.

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