TORONTO – Pierre-Luc Dubois rag-dolled Auston Matthews. Neal Pionk took out Rasmus Sandin’s knee, causing him to miss nearly a month of action. Class act Jason Spezza targeted Pionk in retaliation. Nine goals were scored, but scores themselves felt far from settled.
When the dust settled on the only other grudge match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets this season, you could count two injuries, 52 penalty minutes, two suspensions and two dressing rooms on tilt.
Matthews called the evening “a gong show.”
Inside the Jets room, Mark Scheifele held aloft the player-of-the-game fighter helmet and spoke for everyone inside the Jets dressing room: “Is there anything better than beating the Leafs?”
Wayne Simmonds doesn’t mind the sentiment. He understands Leafs hate because he used to be Scheifele.
“Yeah, that’s fine. I feel most teams feel that way. I feel like every team that goes up against us really wants to beat us. Whatever. They got the win. They can enjoy it whatever way they want,” Simmonds said Thursday morning, prepping for the do-over.
“Tonight will be a different story.”
As critical as Thursday’s two points are to both the Maple Leafs (hungry for home ice) and the Jets (desperate for a wild card), the nasty words and deeds exchanged between the two sides has been ramping up since last season, when they were racing for the Canadian Division crown.
“You play any team 10 times, naturally there’s gonna be a bit of bad blood,” Simmonds said.
“We’re Toronto. I’m not trying to be arrogant or cocky, but I feel like Toronto is kinda universally known as the centre of the hockey world.
“I know when I used to play against the Leafs, I loved crushing them. I know that feeling. I have no doubt in my mind that every single player in this league feels that way when they play against us.”
The Jets especially.
Which is why Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe is sitting undersized Colin Blackwell after he played his best game and scored his first goal as a Leaf Tuesday in Boston, replacing him with stewing healthy scratch Simmonds for this one.
“We think it’s going to be a physical game,” Keefe said. “We’re hoping so.”
Simmonds, 33, finds himself in a tenuous spot after inking a two-year deal with his hometown club over the summer. His production has dried up (four goals and 14 points in 60 games). He’s been benched for a string of games in favour of younger legs. And his visceral impact has lessened.
“Naturally, you get upset and you look for answers of what you need to do better,” Simmonds said. “I know I need to play better. So, that’s up to me. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
What does playing better look like?
“Physicality, keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone, and making sure I’m responsible defensively,” Simmonds replied.
Keefe took Blackwell aside and assured him he’ll pop right back in the lineup Saturday in Philadelphia.
The coach also had a chat with his trio of experienced fourth-liners, Simmonds, Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford. With Blackwell buzzing, prospect Nick Abruzzuse promised a look, and blue-chipper Matthew Knies expected to join mid-April, jobs are in danger.
“All three of them need to continue to get better. Blackwell has come in and done a good job for us, so he has a leg up on them,” Keefe said. “Those are veteran guys that we respect greatly, and we want them to find their game.”
As if Simmonds & Co. needed any extra motivation facing the Jets on their own turf.
“They’re a big, physical team always. So, I’m expecting nothing less,” Simmonds said.
“That’s the way their team plays. I expect nothing less from them. So, we’re looking to come out tonight with two points, first and foremost. But we know what we’re in for.”
• Erik Källgren starts in goal for Toronto. Petr Mrazek’s third groin injury of the season will put him out a minimum of six weeks.
Jack Campbell (rib) has been medically cleared to play. He took a rest day Thursday but will get in a full practice Friday and could start as early as Saturday.
“When we play like we have been playing,” Keefe said, “that gives no matter who’s in a goal a great chance of success.”
• Ilya Lyubushkin left Tuesday’s game after taking a punch to the head from Taylor Hall. Lyubushkin put in 30 minutes of solo work with Nik Antropov before the morning skate, but the medical staff is exercising caution with the defenceman because he dealt with “a number of symptoms” after the shot.
“He has been playing very well for us. For him to not be available as a result of a play like that is tough to take,” Keefe said. “We’re happy to hear that it looks like it’s not going to be serious.”
• Justin Holl is good to go after taking a puck to the head Tuesday. And Jake Muzzin (concussion) should now be considered day-to-day and might join the Leafs on their four-game road trip. “He’s getting close,” Keefe said.
• Toronto recalled Michael Hutchinson, Mac Hollowell and Filip Kral from the Marlies on emergency basis.
• Maple Leafs’ projected lines Thursday: